by Roy Lukes

Autumn Brings A Veritable Caterpillar Parade

Woolly Bear caterpillar
Woolly bears are seen during the fall as they search for places to spend the winter.

One of my added awards when picking the last of our Autumn Bliss raspberries a few days ago was discovering a woolly bear caterpillar resting in the sunshine on a raspberry leaf. With the digital camera close at hand, its beautiful sun-lit image was soon stored in our computer along with hundreds of other nature-related subjects to be used with future stories and for teaching and enjoyment.

Hardly a sunny day goes by now without seeing individual woolly bears "humping" their way across a road as though they know exactly where they are going. For years it was believed that these furry black and rusty-brown creatures could foretell the severity of the winter to come. A narrow center band supposedly meant a cold winter while a wider band predicted a mild winter.

A number of years ago the American Museum of Natural History in New York City received many letters and phone calls in response to their study of this popular belief. People were asking if they should buy a new furnace, snow tires, or better yet, go south for the winter.

Much to the inquirers’ disappointment the museum scientists, following several years of serious study, were finally able to announce that the lowly woolly bear was absolutely incapable of predicting future weather patterns. Rather, it is thought that the varying widths of the colored bands are related to the age of the caterpillar. By the way, there may be some relationship between the caterpillar’s furry coat and the fact that it winters in this condition rather than in the more usual egg or cocoon stage.

Come spring, the caterpillar will enter its pupal, or cocoon, stage and eventually emerge as the Isabella moth, a light tan, lightly speckled, two to two and a half-inch creature. Incidentally another name for this well-recognized caterpillar in other parts of the county is the black-ended bear.
Yellow bear caterpillar
This yellow bear caterpillar feasted on zinnia petals, one of many different plants it consumes.

The two large patches of tall zinnias bordering our front sidewalk have attracted a host of caterpillars, butterflies and other insects each summer. An unusually beautiful caterpillar we discovered last year feasting upon the petals of a deep pink zinnia blossom was the yellow bear, the larva of theVirginia tiger moth, a small white-winged creature. What especially impressed us about this light yellow, furry creature was the delicate clustered arrangement of its outward flaring silky spines, somewhat like those on the woolly bear but not as closely spaced.

Very few animals lend themselves better to intimate, easily-obtainable study than caterpillars. They are slow-moving, abundant, and easy to find. The name comes from the French "chalepelose" meaning hairy cat. Perhaps they are so intriguing because each is a part of an imminent metamorphic mystery.

A wonderful feature related to their study is that, with very few exceptions, they are safe and quite harmless to handle. In all the years of working with elementary children collecting thousands of caterpillars at the start of the school year in September and October, there was only one case of soreness on the part of the collector.

A little boy on his way to school got so carried away by his exciting discovery of a "whole bush full of caterpillars!" that he came walking into my room with his cupped hands absolutely brimming with dozens of a species of hairy caterpillar that I never did identify. Apparently some of the seemingly harmless fiber-glass-like spines brushed off onto his fingers. Later, when rubbing his eyes, a few of these hairs gave him some very watery and red eyes that required medical treatment – fortunately nothing serious.

The study of caterpillars can lead to some excellent botany lessons because most of these creatures tend to be very fussy about their leaf-food. Those of the monarch butterflies eat leaves of many milkweed species, fritillary butterflies like violets (and eat them only at night), black swallowtails feast on carrot leaves, parsley and Queen Anne’s lace, while tent caterpillars are fairly partial to wild cherry. Woolly bears and yellow bears are not at all fussy about the leaves they consume.

Fortunately the caterpillars don’t have to search far and wide for their favorite vegetation. The female moth or butterfly will have already made the proper choice of laying its eggs on the correct food or host plant of the caterpillars to be hatched.

Feel relieved knowing that all of the caterpillars, especially those you don’t want in your vegetable garden or field or farm crops, will not survive through the day. Many hornets and wasps feed their young on caterpillar "meat." Other predators of caterpillars include birds, toads, frogs, beetles, spiders, skunks, snakes and shrews.

Revel in the beauty of small and delicate creatures in nature, but remember what John Gay said in 1727: "And what’s a butterfly? At best he’s but a caterpillar dressed."

This column appeared in the Door County Advocate on 10/11/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Roy Lukes. All rights reserved.