For decades, my family has gone on annual caterpillar hunts. We start in late August and continue into early September. We find Monarch caterpillars munching irregular patterns into Milkweed leaves while inching their way up and down thick, sticky stalks. Meanwhile, the caterpillars that turn into Black Swallowtails are busy chomping through the lacy leaves of carrot plants, Queen Anne’s Lace and the parsley that spills from my herb garden — curly, waving stems of green. But this year, my husband brought us something new.
“Look at what I found,” Dan said when he walked in the door last Monday. “What kind of worm is this?”
He held out a branch and on it was a huge pale green caterpillar. It had spikes of blue and yellow protruding from the body. Its antennae had round orange and black tips that looked like tiny ladybugs on top. The nearly five-inch-long worm was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
“It looks a bit like a tomato horn worm,” I said, but Dan shook his head.
“It’s not a horn worm. It was on the box elder trees at work.”
I snapped a photo of the worm to post on Facebook, while he cut holes in the top of a giant plastic jug, placing branches and leaves inside with the unidentified worm.
Not long after I posted, people began to make guesses. A lot of people said it was a tomato worm, but we knew that wasn’t right. Then, Jenny Sipes wrote, “It’s the Cecropia Silk Worm,” and she posted a link to information about the big caterpillar.
“The Cecropia caterpillar eats the leaves of many trees and shrubs, including ash, birch, box elder, alder, elm, maple, poplar, wild cherry, plum, willow, apple, and lilac,” the snippet said. The photo of the worm beside it was an identical match.
The more I read, the more excited I got. The Cecropia Silk Moth is the largest moth in North America, and wow, it has a wingspan of five to seven inches! The caterpillar stage is the only stage in which the insect has chewing mouth parts. As it eats and grows, it faces a problem. The skin does not stretch on this particular caterpillar, so he must molt, something he does several times, binding his body to the branch with a few strands of webbing to hold him in place during the molt. Afterwards, he walks out of his old skin, continuing to eat and grow until the next molt. Sometime in late August, the caterpillar spins a cocoon, which will winter over, even in sub-zero temperatures.
Near the end of May or in early June, the moth emerges from the cocoon. It immediately sends out a pheromone to attract a male moth. That scent is so strong that the male can sense it from a mile away with his delicate antennae. The mated pair will remain together throughout the following day. Because its mouth is too small and it lacks a digestive system, the Cecropia Moth cannot eat and lives less than two weeks, long enough to lay eggs and start the cycle over again.
I couldn’t wait to show this giant worm to my grandchildren. Over the years, we had watched Monarch caterpillars spin their minty green cocoons on the lids of many jars. We are always in awe of the finished chrysalis with pearl droplets lining the seam. Within 12 days the Monarchs always emerge, wet and weak, unfolding their wings to sit on paper towels soaked in sugar water. After they sip up this instant energy, their wings come to life. When they are dry, we release them in the Milkweed patch of their origin.
We also collect Black Swallowtail caterpillars, placing one in each jar with lots of parsley to eat and one big stick for them to hang and weave their chrysalis. The Swallowtails’ metamorphosis takes place over the course of the season, wintering over. His chrysalis is as brown as the stick itself, oddly shaped with a point on the tip. Mother Nature has programmed these caterpillars to build homes that blend into their environment, whether it’s the green leaf of a Milkweed plant or the dried brown of a parsley bush. In the spring, when the Swallowtails emerge, we give them paper towels soaked with sugar water too. They soak up the liquid energy and then they are released.
The gigantic Cecropia caterpillar offered a whole new experience, but it spun its cocoon overnight, before we could take it to show the kids! So I asked Dan if he could find another worm to bring home. I wanted the kids to see both the worm and the oddly shaped cocoon. Unlike the others, this one — spun on a stick with leaves wrapped in — looks like a big fried potato wedge.
Dan found not one, but two more caterpillars. We took the caterpillars and the spun cocoon to see the kids. Since then, the second worm has spun and is safe inside his new brown home, and the third one is going to my youngest granddaughters’ classroom, so more kids can experience the miracle of metamorphosis.
If you have children or grandchildren who might like to watch a butterfly’s story unfold, it’s not hard to find Monarch caterpillars on Milkweed plants, or Swallowtail caterpillars on Queen Anne’s Lace or wild carrots along the edges of Carroll’s many backroads. Or maybe you can find one right in your garden!
Mother Nature offers the most amazing lessons, reminding us of how intricately each creature. plant and twig, every droplet of sun and rain is woven into the fabric that we call life. Each picture on the quilt may be different, but each serves a unique purpose all its own. To me, Mother Nature is an example of how we should live our lives — the give and take, the need to pay attention to what is around us, the necessity to adapt but to still stand tall and strong against every storm that rolls our way, so that we can give back again to another beautiful day.
Lois Szymanski is a Carroll County resident. Her Life & Times column, The Great Big World, appears every other Sunday. Email her at email@example.com