Friday, July 16, 2010

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

As it is currently the Year of the Tiger, I would love to be able to say that this big, fat caterpillar I found in my garden is the larva of a western tiger swallowtail, one of the few species of butterfly that flit through our neighborhood. But I'm afraid that would be a lie. A tiger swallowtail caterpillar is club-shaped and has eerie eyespots on its back that make it look like a creepy little snake lurking in the leaves, a perfect disguise for scaring off a hungry bird.

(Or a prying kid. I can still remember clambering through shrubs in our Long Island backyard as a kid and suddenly coming face to face with a hideous lime-green Something with enormous yellow-and-black eyes bulging from its head. I screamed and ran. Two decades passed before I figured out it was nothing but the caterpillar of a spicebush swallowtail butterfly.)

No, the sad truth is, I have no idea what this caterpillar is. I thought at first it was the young'un of the cabbage butterfly (also called the cabbage moth, even though it isn't one; in that sort of mood, you might as well call it the cabbage frog, or the cabbage gnu, since it isn't a frog or gnu, either). But that plump larva apparently has yellow stripes, not white.

Not that many of our cabbage-butterfly larvae (known as cabbage loopers) ever survive to become yellow-striped green teenagers. Last year, we planted lots of broccoli, collards, and kale in our garden, so our little vegetable patch promptly became a mecca for fluttering crowds of cabbage whites ready to lay eggs on suitable host plants for their young. When I discovered hordes of little green caterpillars inching and munching their way through the crop, I looked for good ways to dispatch them--and there are many--before settling on a most excellent one: hire your money-hungry kid to find and collect them at a bounty of 10 cents per larva.

Our resident bounty-hunter amassed a fortune in this enterprise and even enlisted her cousin for an afternoon. The caterpillars went on to become snacks for a friend's chickens.

This one, however, wasn't gobbling up our crops. It clung to the stem of a perennial in a planter, a tall purple-flowered spike known as veronica or speedwell. (I fully intend to name a character Veronica Speedwell in that novel I fully intend to write one day.) So it was left unscathed.

We're guessing it might be the larva of a yellow Clouded Sulphur butterfly. But there are an awful lot of caterpillars that meet the description of "green with white stripes." If I had a dime for every species whose larva fit the bill, I'd be almost as rich as my daughter.

1 comment:

  1. Very impressed at your caterpillar management skills. Was reminded of this as I pulled ragwort this weekend. When daughter was small she liked to help. Chances of that happening now beyond remote. Afraid I can't help you with the caterpillar identification but it's a lovely picture!

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