Category Archives: Caterpillar

We Don’t All Eat Leaves, You Know

Dateline: January 24, 2014*

Bella Moth Caterpillar

This week I was thrilled to find the caterpillar of a Bella Moth (Utetheisa ornatrix). While this larvae does eat some plant material in early stages, the diet as it grows, changes over to the seeds, so they bore their way into the seed pods. That’s why these caterpillars may be hard to find. Usually they are inside and not readily visible.  The seeds contain chemical alkaloids, which they consume to become poisonous or at least repellant to predators. Much like Milkweed provides this ability to the Monarch and Queen Butterflies.

Rabbitbells seed pod

I first saw a ripening pod and looked closely to reveal the telltale hole. I removed the pod and split it open to find the tiniest of tiny caterpillars.  If you look closely, you can see the seeds that it began munching away on.

Caterpillar is as tiny as the seeds, but you can see where it was munching on them

I shared a photo via social media and a fellow entomology enthusiast posted a photo of a much larger caterpillar and in his picture the larvae was creating the hole. Armed with this vision in my mind, I headed out to the Rabbitbells a.k.a., Rattlebox (Crotalaria rotundifolia), one of the larval hosts for Bella Moth. Eventually I was rewarded.  There, posed on the pod, was a near mirror image of what was posted.

Now, Theres one thats substantial heading in for additional food

This caterpillar was MUCH larger…as much as 5 times the size of my hidden friend from days before.

This brings up the point that not every caterpillar can be found on, or exclusively eating, green leaves.

Red-banded Hairstreak Butterfly (Calycopis cecrops). Youll find the larval in leaf debris

Some time back, I can remember searching and searching the sumacs and wax myrtles for the larvae of Red-banded Hairstreak Butterfly (Calycopis cecrops).  I never had any success as I turned over leaf after leaf hoping to add to my photo collection of Lepidoptera larvae.  C. cecrops readily flies in droves at my place.

Mind you, I’d be searching until the cows come home since this Hairstreak species is the only Florida butterfly to utilize detritus as larval food. I really need to scout around the leaf debris if I’m intent on finding a photo opportunity. Another excellent reason to not be so quick to do gardening cleanup…there is life in gardening debris!

Litter Moth (Idia americalis) shown here on wood debris, the larvae feed on lichens

Many moth species use leaf litter and other similar larval hosts. Lichen is another popular food. As a matter of fact, there is a whole tribe of lichen moths (Lithosiini).  Lichen is a fungus that grows together with a photosynthetic partner in a symbiotic relationship. That partner is often alga.

Some bagworms feed on lichen

Bagworms, those odd case creators, also have members of their species who eat lichens.

So, when it comes to gardening, you may not be missing a butterfly or moth caterpillar sighting because you don’t see them conspicuously munching on the host plant leaves or flowers. Some are nocturnal diners who only come out in the dead of night. Or, they may just be at the base of the plant eating castoff portions that they need to survive.  Then again, they may be seeking refuge inside the “Rattlebox” cafe.

Many of these caterpillars are thought of as “pest” species… leaf-rollers and leaf miners likely make you cringe. Heck, they are yummy bird food (no personal experience here) or turn into pollinators so consider alternate scenarios before passing judgment.

Grape Leafroller (Desmia spp.) doesnt seem so offensive when it is in moth stage.

What have you found caterpillars eating?

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 24, 2014 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Don’t Skip the Long-Tailed Skipper Butterfly

Dateline:  March 13, 2015*

I spotted a skipper butterfly flitting from leaf to leaf on the ticktrefoil (Desmodium spp.). This woody somewhat vine-y genus of plants has many different species.  I’m still not confident in my identification to species, and I tend to think that this one is D. incanum which is introduced rather than the native although there is some debate by experts that it may well be native and IRC in South Florida treats it as such.

Desmodium sp. likely incanum commonly called Ticktrefoil or Beggar’s-ticks

Since I saw the butterfly on this particular plant, at least I could be sure of the butterfly identification.
Shown on blackberry

Meet the Long-tailed Skipper butterfly (Urbanus proteus). The photos of the adults are from prior encounters. I wasn’t quick enough to snap a photo of my early spring arrival.  I did however get a photograph of the eggs shown in the top photo.

Larval Host Plants: Numerous members of the Pea family (Fabaceae) including Beaked Butterfly Pea (Centrosema virginianum), American Wisteria (Wisteria americana), Kudzu (Pueraria Montana), and ticktrefoils (Desmodium spp.) Source: Florida Museum of Natural History

Long-tail Skipper Caterpillar aka leafroller

These dicot skippers (Subfamily Eudaminae) are larger than some of the more typical grass skippers seen.  They are prolific at my place.  The caterpillars are commonly called “bean leafrollers” and are looked down upon because they may be a pest of commercial bean growing operations.  They have plenty of Desmodium in my yard so I won’t worry about snap beans or peas…I would just relocate the cats to an ornamental plant and save my “cash crops”.

They are nocturnal feeders so you can find the caterpillars hidden away in “tents” made of rolled up leaves…thus the common name for the wiggly stage.

They are quite beautiful butterflies.  The turquoise blue iridescent coloring of the back and body is elegant and looks like rich fur.

They are interesting to watch as they nectar at a variety of flowers.  If you are in their range, it is worth looking out for the Long-tailed Skipper in your beautiful wildlife garden.

nectaring on Aster

*This is an update of a tale originally published by Loret T. Setters on March 13, 2015 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Enjoying Little Things in the Garden

Dateline:  April 25, 2014*

Little Yellow Butterflies

I started a blog series in January 2013 that I call “Central Florida Critter of the Day”. I publish a photo highlighting the fauna of Florida, be it insect, spider, bird, mammal, reptile…you get the idea.  Some form of living creature that I find hanging around in or near my beautiful wildlife garden.

I try to provide a little information about these creatures, sometimes what they eat, sometimes what eats them and their benefit to the garden.  I always try to include an appropriate follow-up link to find further information.

Little Yellow Butterfly Egg on Sensitive Pea

This week was no different, so the other day I published a photo of the egg of the Little Yellow Butterfly. That’s the common name for Pyrisitia lisa. Appropriate, eh?

On Facebook, someone left the comment “Goodness, how did you see that egg?”  Truth is I have old eyes and if it were not for the fact that I was chasing the adult butterfly around to get a photo, I never would have found it on my own.   How did I see it?  Hmm, did I EVEN see it?

Fact is, I pretty much leaned down with the ol’ point and shoot camera and snapped a photo of the location where I saw the butterfly maneuver her ovipositor toward the host plant. An ovipositor is an organ at the end of the female butterfly’s abdomen through which she deposits her eggs. Mom butterflies lay their eggs on or close to the plants that the young will eat. Known as larval hosts, it is handy to know what plant species provide food for butterfly larvae in your area.

Great Southern White Butterfly Eggs on the underside of a Pepperweed leaf

Some eggs are miniscule and the only way I am ever going to see them or the caterpillars is to watch where mom drops the eggs.  This Little Yellow chose the larval host Sensitive Pea (Chamaecrista nictitans), a lovely plant native to Florida.  This particular species of butterflies use both members of the pea family that grace my property.  The other plant is Partridge pea (C. fasciculata).  Some of you may know these as the genus Cassia, a synonym.

This will give you an idea of how small butterfly eggs are.

Fast forward a day or two, I was getting ready to run some errands and as I was approaching the car, I noticed a Great Southern White (Ascia monuste) dancing around some of the wildflowers.  I knew there was the larval host among those wildflowers.  At my place, this butterfly uses Virginia Pepperweed (Lepidium virginicum) as a preferred host.

Since I don’t have a phone with a camera, I made a mental note of the location and jumped in the car.  Later on, after I returned and the groceries were put away, I headed out to the general area where I saw the butterfly and crouched down to nose around some of the plants.  I was rewarded by finding a few eggs.  Then I noticed some minute caterpillars on the plant as well.

Southern White Caterpillar

I have found the eggs before by watching mom lay them, but I never was able to find the caterpillars.  Now I know why.  OMG, are they SMALL.

So I share the photos of my adventure to give you an idea of what you will be looking for if you are inclined to hunt for butterfly eggs.  It’s a lot harder than an Easter Egg hunt.

Happily there are a bunch of cats!

Do you kill or pull unsightly “weeds”?  Since I was a little girl there are a lot less butterflies fluttering around.  Oddly, around the 1960s it became fashionable to have the perfect manicured lawn, and people used chemicals and muscle to removed “unsightly” things that peeked up through the carpet of green.   It would seem there is a correlation between these two events. As we change and reshape Mom Nature’s habitat, the native fauna is suffering and even disappearing.

Cats try to hide in the fold of a leaf, but the leaves are very skinny

Now you know where the butterflies have gone.  Many have disappeared because people don’t realize that by removing certain plants they deem unnecessary, they are, in fact, throwing away their butterflies.  Don’t be one of those people.

This 10 footer should have been easy to spot 😉

Instead, learn to appreciate and encourage these larval hosts. Get out your magnifying glass and hunt around. Or do what I do…point, shoot and head to the computer to zoom in on the fascinating little bits of life in your beautiful wildlife garden.

Great Southern White (Ascia monuste)
Southern White Butterfly. Don’t throw these beauties away

*This is an update of a tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on April 25, 2014 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Viceroy Butterfly Puts up a Smokescreen

Dateline:  October 12, 2012*

Viceroy Butterfly Caterpillar makes short order of the leaves of this willow

The Viceroy Butterfly (Limenitis archippus) practices mimicry. One theory is that the Müllerian relationship with the milkweed butterflies helps keep the numbers of both species up by fooling birds into thinking they are all rather toxic, so less are eaten as appetizers.

From a distance, hard to distinguish from a monarch or queen, the black line across the hindwing is the giveaway

And, it may just be that all these species are unpleasant to eat. Mind you, I’m not tasting any of them soon, especially since the Viceroy adults are fond of feeding on rotten fruit, feces and carrion.

Ventral view

In Florida, they take on the coloring of the Monarch and Queen butterflies depending upon location within the state. These two milkweed butterflies build up toxins from their host, making them distasteful to predators. Viceroys are said to have a bitter taste from the salicylic acid consumed on its own larval host, the Willow (Salix spp.), Poplar and Cottonwood (Populus spp.), so they have their own off-taste, though it may not be as toxic as the Danaus genus of milkweed eaters.

The caterpillars look a little like bird droppings

The Viceroy has several subspecies giving it a wide and varied range across the United States and Canada. Another interesting aspect of the Viceroy butterfly is the fact that it forms occasional natural hybrids with the red spotted purple (Limenitis astyanax), who’s range covers the eastern half of the US. Although the same genus of butterfly, they are a mimic and a non-mimic. Gives new meaning to embrace all your brothers and sisters.

Different caterpillar instars have different looks. This one is darker so the “saddle” is more prominent

A while ago when I spotted my first viceroy butterfly, I read up on what was needed in the way of a larval host. I then specifically purchased a native willow tree to put next to my pond, which encourages them to reproduce in my garden, not just stop by for a spot of nectar. The same goes for other species of butterflies. Read up on what larval hosts will attract those butterflies that you’d like to see more of and plant it. I have been rewarded many times over, proving that if you plant it they will come.

Visiting Muscadine Grapevine in 2015

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on October 12, 2012 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Moving Day: Black Swallowtail Butterfly

blackswallowtail082710aA week or so ago I saw the fluttering of a Black Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) by my container garden of edibles.  I grow parsley because fresh parsley is key to some culinary dishes and I make a pretty darn good meatball and some decent shrimp scampi, if I do say so myself.

I was out and about late yesterday afternoon to water the edibles since Florida is headed into dry season with a vengeance and there hasn’t been any sign of showers to help grow the veggies.  I turned on the hose and headed over to water the mostly basil-filled garden.  The tomatoes are beginning to come back and I did get to pick a small green pepper recently.  I’m glad summer is over because now I can focus on growing a wider variety of veggies again.

Who is eating my CASH CROPS?
Who is eating my CASH CROPS?

I cursed a little…darn those PARSLEY WORMS!  Okay, okay, I really didn’t curse and I really don’t call these guys worms.  They are the larvae of the beautiful Black Swallowtail Butterfly and I welcome them to my garden, just not my parsley.   Funny how butterfly gardeners call the crawly things larvae or caterpillars, but the farmers call them worms in a sort of derogatory fashion.

Black Swallowtail Butterflies use members of carrot family as their larval hosts.  That include “cash crops” (a.k.a. things I eat) Dill, Parsley, Fennel and Carrot.  That’s when they feel my wrath.  On the other hand, when they eat some lovely natives such as Mock Bishopsweed (Ptilimnium capillaceum) and Water Cowbane (Tiedemannia filiformis) I welcome them with open arms.

I headed back to the pond area to look for some Cowbane.  All the Cowbane around my pond area has gone to seed. I thought I had noticed some down the block along the culvert when I went out to shop the other day but alas, none left at my place to feed young caterpillars.  I headed back to finish up watering the plants and then headed into the house for the evening.

Scads of Cardinals routinely visit the edible garden in the early morning to munch on caterpillars or leaf foot bugs
Scads of Cardinals routinely visit the edible garden in the early morning to munch on caterpillars or leaf foot bugs

Earlier this season I had also seen some cats on the parsley but by the next day they had disappeared.  There are a LOT of cardinals and other songbirds that visit this area and also a couple of resident anoles so I figured maybe they would tend to these munchers of my tasty meatball ingredient.

anoles tend to many critters that are pests to my veggies.
anoles tend to many critters that are pests to my veggies.

Friday is trash pickup day for my area.  You need to have it out early because the workers will occasionally whiz by at 7am and if you don’t have your discards at the road you miss it for another week. I don’t have a lot of trash because I recycle bottles, cans and paper and I compost any biodegradables. I carried my small bag down to the gate, and left it by the edge of the culvert.  Then I took a stroll along the culvert to see if there was any native species in the carrot family.  The culvert has a vast array of roadside wildflowers and I was pleased to see that Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) has made its way down to in front of my house.

Water Cowbane
Water Cowbane

YIPPEE!  Right next to the Pickerelweed was a grouping of Water Cowbane…a new home for those pesky PARSLEY WORMS!  Truth be told had there not been a plant for the transfer the delicable caterpillars would have wound up swimming with the fishes or placed on the platform feeder where birds could find an easy meal.   I believe in the circle of life and don’t “save” any particular species in the food chain…except my parsley, of course 😉

MOVING DAY!
MOVING DAY!

I headed to the backyard, gathered up my caterpillar friends and all five of them were gently transferred to the natives out at the culvert.

Settling in at the new diner
Settling in at the new diner

Now, I just hope that the reason the meatballs are so tasty is because of the parsley and not because I didn’t wash it enough and some secret caterpillar sauce blended in.  😀

Sure hope this wasn't the secret ingredient to my tasty meatballs.
Sure hope this wasn’t the secret ingredient to my tasty meatballs.

The Worms Crawl In but Do They Swim?

This is an update of a tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on August 22, 2014 at the defunct national blog nativeplantwildlifegarden[dot]com beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com.

baldcypressmay2013This week I noticed that there was some webbing on a Baldcypress tree I planted a while back. At some point my property was likely home to many of these trees as is evident by decaying knees I see when the pond level gets low.  These majestic trees require wet conditions during part of the year so are often seen reflecting in the waters of swamps, ponds and rivers.  I’ve added a couple as a part of restoration efforts to return appropriate native plants to my property’s ecosystem.

Why are some caterpillars called worms?
Why are some caterpillars called worms?

I did a little research and found that these trees can be host to the Fall Webworm (Hyphantria cunea) which is a generalist that can use any of a multitude of trees as a food source.  Bugguide notes there are possibly 120 hardwood species as potential hosts.  The topmost photo shows a grouping on Elderberry.  Webworms aren’t worms at all, but moth caterpillars. The adults are pretty little things…white or white with black dots, rather like a Dalmatian of the Lepidoptera set.

My goodness something poops a lot
My goodness something poops a lot

I noticed a single web and initially didn’t see any caterpillars, just a ton of messy frass (caterpillar poop). It started on the tip of just one small branch, but over a period of a week, it had spread to several branches. With my Baldcypress being so young, I was a little concerned that it might be losing too much foliage to survive.  My tree is a mere 6-foot or so and has really just started upward growth in the past year with initial years dedicated to working on underground root systems.

As far as Fall Webworms, according to Florida County Extension Services (pdf):

“The damage caused by this species is considered aesthetic. Typically it is late in the season when the webbing is noticed and the bald cypress would be defoliating soon anyway, so spraying won’t protect the trees. Also, with bald cypress which typically grows along ponds and waterways, the drift from spraying with some insecticides could endanger aquatic life, that means dead fish and frogs, etc. So, it is better to let nature take its course and do nothing.”

When I finally spotted the actual caterpillars, there were so many that my concern got the best of me.  Rather than let nature take its course, I decided to handpick off a bunch of the caterpillars. Despite being a bugaholic, I don’t like touching the critters without something between them and my skin, so I covered my hand with a plastic bag.

My my there are a lot of these guys
My my there are a lot of these guys

Now, what to do with my handful of critters…I really didn’t want to just squish them, figuring something somewhere may want a fresh LIVE meal.  AHHHHH!!!!  FISH!  maybe the fish would like a free meal.

I headed over to the pond and dropped a few into the water.  There was immediate activity as the mosquito fish converged on the wigglers.  Unfortunately the arrivals were mostly fry and the caterpillars were 4-5 times their size so the fish quickly headed off to find something to eat that was not quite so beefy.

Finally! A fish large enough to eat one of these buggers
Finally! A fish large enough to eat one of these buggers

I was a little disappointed when suddenly, one of the largest mosquito fish came over and snapped up a caterpillar whole. Just the end of the cat was hanging from its mouth as it chomped away.

It was slow going, with many of the fish sniffing, but less than interested.  I thought perhaps I would see the larger Blue Gill fish and Largemouth Bass, but they were nowhere to be found.  Still, an occasional larger mosquito fish was partaking in the bounty, so I headed back to the tree to gather some more tidbits.

Webworms are pretty smart creatures.  They spin a web around the entire gang and peacefully dine within the nice comfy confines.  Predators are reluctant to get caught in the webs, so the caterpillars are free to munch away without being disturbed.  That is until the BRAVE human comes along with protection from sticky webs in the form of the Wal-Mart bag on her hand.

Well, well, well, someone saw an opening and took advantage
Well, well, well, someone saw an opening and took advantage

When I got back to the tree, I saw a Southern Yellowjacket wasp (Vespula squamosa) had taken advantage of a break in the web to grab a caterpillar. He seemed to be munching on the caterpillar and I learned that they feed their larva masticated (chewed) arthropods.

It seems that

“wasps perform a valuable service in destroying many insects that attack cultivated and ornamental plants”.

Yellowjackets are pretty aggressive often proving dangerous with their vast numbers at nests and ability to sting multiple times, so they are not my favorite creatures. But, they appear to be a step up the food chain from the Webworms, so I have a newfound respect for them.  Still, if Yellowjackets nest close to the house they will be toast. Stings can be dangerous as they don’t let up when defending their nest.  My little guy seemed less than interested in me as she played with her food, but then again she was only preparing the meal for the young, not putting the dinner plate out at the living quarters.

(Hyphantria cunea)
(Hyphantria cunea)

Other natural enemies used in biological control of Hyphantria cunea are certain chalcid wasps that are parasitoids in the Pteromalidae family. It says that these attack pupae so in my case, they would be too late to save the foliage, although it would impact next years’ population of the moths who do the egg laying.

Still, not wanting to see my tree leafless this early in the season, I stripped another grouping of the Webworms and tossed them into the pond.  This group was still attached to some greenery contained in some webbing so it looked like a little raft of refugees floating and desperately trying to return to land as they wriggled in unison.  And the “sharks” were circling.

A “raft” of webworms float on the waters
A “raft” of webworms float on the waters

So, while Webworms may not be a favorite, they do feed other wildlife and heck, all that frass must be full of great fertilizing nutrients which will return to the soil to help my Baldcycpress grow to be a majestic tree like others in the neighborhood. That will give the Webworms more meals and they’ll be grateful that I won’t be able to reach up and grab them any longer.

Another Year of Wildlife Gardening Education

This week marks the start of my sixth year of writing about my wildlife gardening escapades.  I have no formal training or education in gardening; I just report the encounters and happenings as they occur before my very own eyes. I’m still learning daily about how everything relies on something else to keep a garden in balance.

Sadly, it seems that beautifulwildlifegarden.com is going to stay in a defunct state.  It contained a wealth of information from some very talented writers. Unfortunately, the writers had no control over the website. I did manage to locate archives with resource links for the majority of my articles so over the course of the next couple of weeks I will be posting archives of my past articles on websites that I do have control over.

For my 5th anniversary blog, I will start with the very first article that I wrote…one of which I am most proud.  It stands the test of time.

This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on October 8, 2010 at (beautifulwildlifegarden.com/). Click the date to view reader comments and find archive links to resources used.

When Choosing Plants, Think Food Chain

by Loret T. Setters

Caterpillars of Automeris io moth
Caterpillars of Automeris io moth

I do outreach events for the local chapter of The Florida Native Plant Society. This is our busiest time of year as the weather turns cooler and delightfully breezy.This past weekend we were at the local Home Depot, sharing our space with Audubon as we often do. I always bring a few live bugs or small garden critters to serve as a conversation starter in how to go about creating a beautiful wildlife garden. It gets kids interested in plants and keeps their attention while I talk to the parents about biodiversity.

I only had about five minutes to locate my “friends” in the early morning hours when things are wet and critters aren’t as plentiful, but I managed to gather a treefrog, a lynx spider and a white peacock butterfly, who was just emerging. Into their display cases they went with proper moisture and plant materials.

When things slowed down at the event, Larry, the president of the Kissimmee Audubon who is also a Native Plant Society member and I got to talking. He said that he was amazed at what I find in my yard to get the conversation flowing. He remarked that not many people could do as I did the week before and bring seven different species to an event without struggling to find them.

That hunt on a single area of Bidens Alba and some native mallow species took me about 15 minutes resulting in finding a praying mantis, two different butterflies, soldier beetles, a spider, and a treefrog. I added a grasshopper which I found on a citrus tree and I only stopped because I ran out of display containers.

Afternoon events are always easier to supply because the bugs are enjoying the sun and are plentiful. Our discussion continued in how planting for butterflies is good but having a lot of different plants in a garden to support all types of native insects is critical in being sustainable and providing for a more diverse array of wildlife.

Birds like all caterpillars, not just those of the butterflies. Consider planting some native plants that support moth caterpillars. You’ll feel less upset about the caterpillars being devoured. I don’t want to give the moths a complex by pointing out that some are not as pretty as a butterfly, but if I see a bird near my Cowbane (Oxypolis filiformis), I get a little uneasy feeling that perhaps he is eating a potential Black Swallowtail Butterfly. Alternately, if I see a bird on a Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera) I enjoy the encounter without much concern that a possible looper moth is being digested. Ok, so I’m a little shallow.  😉

I guess the point is that not every critter is going to be something that you want to hug or photograph but they may be the food for something that you want to hug, photograph or observe in your own beautiful wildlife garden.

Clearly an onslaught of stinging caterpillars (Automeris io (shown above)) on an Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) can be a frightening encounter. But if you wait a day or two to see a fattened anole playfully running up and down the branches of the tree you’ll have expanded your wildlife viewing experience. And you’ll be relieved to observe that the majority of the leaves may still be intact. In the world of native plants, nature tends to keep a balance.

Barbecued Bagworm Moths

The caterpilllar uses silk, twigs, lichens and other bits of debris to form the case
The caterpilllar uses silk, twigs, lichens and other bits of debris to form the case

I had another interesting encounter with a bagworm moth.  You know, those debris covered caterpillars that we all at one time thought were cocoons or pupal cases.  Turns out they often are still in the feeding stage.

Still feeding, you can see the head sticking out from the case
Still feeding, you can see the head sticking out from the case

Bagworm Moths are in the Psychidae family of moths and most only feed in the larval stage.  I often have found them stuck on the aluminum posts that hold up the carport/patio cover. I always assumed that they were in the pupal stage and attributed the disappearance of it to an encounter with a hungry lizard or bird.

bagworm hanging on the side of the bbq
bagworm hanging on the side of the bbq

Well, as I gazed out the kitchen window that overlooks the patio I saw something walking on the barbecue.  Not all that unusual, the lizards routinely use it as a segue to keep out of the reach of nosey dogs.  However, this creature was substantially smaller and moved in an unusual fashion.

I headed out, camera in hand to find a bagworm moth caterpillar creeping along. I snapped a few photos and this short video and left it to fend for itself.

The next day, the bagworm was still on the barbecue.  Was it waiting for me to rustle up some veggieburgers?  I watched it again and it seemed to be feeding.  That’s when it dawned on me.  Many bagworm moths eat lichens.  Lichens attach to a variety of different substrates and I suppose my barbecue is prime real estate, as it doesn’t get used all that often.

When it turned it upside down it retracted completely inside the case
When it turned it upside down it retracted completely inside the case

The bagworm was gone the next day, perhaps moving on to better feeding grounds, or a comfortable place to change into an adult, or maybe it had an encounter with a hungry lizard or bird. 😉

Just another caterpillar
Just another caterpillar

Additional benefits of bagworms are they are a host for parasitoid wasps and tachinid flies. As we need these important pollinators, don’t be too quick to eliminate our bagworm friends from the food chain.

References:

USDA Forest Service
University of Nebraska IANR

University of Florida Entomology Dept.

Are you what you eat in the Wildlife Garden?

The tale of a yellow caterpillar originally published by Loret T. Setters on August 19, 2011 at (beautifulwildlifegarden.com/).

I found a yellow caterpillar of the Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly (Phoebis sennae) on my Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata). I was happy because I do a feature in the monthly issue of The Lily Pad, a newsletter that I write for The Florida Native Plant Society-Osceola County local chapter. The feature is called Before and After, where I feature an insect photographed in it’s larval state and then as emerged in adulthood. I was running out of “befores”.

While eating flower buds, a lovely shade of yellow
While eating flower buds, a lovely shade of yellow

I photographed my find and headed in to make sure I had identified it correctly. Now mind you, it was the third new-to-me caterpillar I found this week, one being an armyworm and the other, some sort of Owlet Moth (Noctuidae) larvae. I am still having a hard time pinpointing the owlet species and I’m sorry that I didn’t collect it when I had the chance. By the time I got back to it, it was long gone.

My Sulphur caterpillar looked similar to others posted at bugguide.net. But some were a horse…ummm…cat of a different color. Insect ID’s aren’t always as simple as one might think. I checked a few different Websites with photos and read, with interest, anecdotal information that caterpillars may change colors based on the part of the plant that they eat. I found another site that specifically mentioned sulphur caterpillars as doing this. When they dine on the flowers, they are yellow, but if they switch to the leaves, after the flowers are spent, well, they turn green. THIS I HAVE TO SEE WITH MY OWN EYES!

Left with only leaves to eat, my caterpillar friend turns green
Left with only leaves to eat, my caterpillar friend turns green

I have often said that I only capture critters when it involves educational study that does no harm, and I felt that this qualifies. I immediately gathered the little yellow cat and a branch of the plant and placed them in a roomy display case (relative to the size of the cat). It was munching away on the flower. I added a small paper towel square dipped in water to maintain moisture and placed the container where it would get brief morning sun, but not so much as to fry the poor thing. The next morning I checked on my guest and (s)he was now munching away on the leaves, and was beginning to look a little “green”. I went out and got a fresh branch of the plant…who likes eating day old food? My charge dutifully climbed onto the fresh greens and I replaced the screening and rewet the paper towel square.

Day four even greener
Day four even greener

Day four, I checked again, and (s)he is even more vivid green. To me this is an interesting phenomenon. There are a lot of caterpillars that are “generalists”— that is, they eat more than one species of plant and I guess they would have color variations based on what plant they choose. An “aha” moment in my occasional problem with identifying cats.

Caterpillars go through various instars and changes to appearance may include coloring. Early instars may match the shade of the fresh young leaves and later instars may become darker to blend in with older leaf coloring.

Early Instar of Banded Sphinx Moth Caterpillar (Eumorpha fasciatus)
Early Instar of Banded Sphinx Moth Caterpillar (Eumorpha fasciatus)
Later instar of Banded Sphinx has quite a different color scheme
Later instar of Banded Sphinx has quite a different color scheme

Have you noticed this in your own wildlife garden?

References::

http://www.learnaboutbutterflies.com/

Plant coloration undermines herbivorous insect camouflage, a research hypothesis (pdf) on plant coloration from Harvard Forest (Harvard University).