Caterpillar Blues

A cherry-plum tree is right outside our bedroom window—so close, you can almost reach out and touch it. On Wednesday morning when we looked out, on the delicate branches that are contrasted with beautiful deep purple leaves, we spied a bright green caterpillar. If they came in sizes, this would have been an extra-large. Curious, we looked around the tree and sure enough there was its twin just a little higher up on another branch. Having discovered a matched set, we felt like it was our lucky day. Cheryl named them Catia and Claudio—after all, they are Italian.

Our window photo studio

Setting up the tripod at the bathroom window, we planned to document what they were up to. You know . . . we thought every day we’d snap a pic or two. We imagined they were settling down to spin those incredible silk cocoons, and the thought of catching an action photo of the emerging butterfly was an exciting challenge. We boldly accepted it, full of anticipation. Capturing the magic on film might even require a 24-hour vigil at some point, but that didn’t scare us off. And so the filming began!

You may not know this, but caterpillars aren’t the swiftest creatures in the world. So in our downtime, we decided to do a little investigative research. The fact is, we really didn’t know much about them. Shouldn’t we have learned all of that in elementary school? We both must have missed that day. So, we decided to educate ourselves (Better late than never).

Our caterpillars were to become Cecropia moths

Let’s pause here for a second to consider a few facts: There are some 20,000 different species of butterflies throughout the world, and without a doubt, their creepy little alter-egos, the caterpillars, don’t seem to dissuade people from loving them all the more. If, for no other reason, their magic act of transformation deserves our full respect and admiration. You’ll find them doing their magical thing in just about every country and climate around the globe. And where do they live, you might ask? Remember the old joke? Like a 600 pound gorilla—they live wherever they want! However, most of the time they prefer plants or flowers as their favorite abodes.

Patented accordion design

Our biggest investigative surprise was that those buggers have some 4,000 tiny little muscles, compared to a human with only about 630. Duh! How else would you create such intricate locomotion known as “gut-first, body later.” We watched Catia motate across the yard trying to escape us, and we must say that they can really pick up some speed when the situation requires. They’re really fascinating little creatures—living breathing slinkies. Pretty neat!

Watch out for the hairs!

Without getting carried away with details, it’s at least worth noting that: 1.) they have very poor vision, 2.) they breathe through a series of tiny little holes in their sides called spiracles, 3.) they’re rich in protein (if you’re desperate or crazy enough to eat one), 4.) they have hairs with detachable tips that can cause us humans a lot of problems when they release (the meanest of the caterpillar clan can cause dermatitis, renal failure, a brain hemorrhage and stuff like that), and . . . if that’s not enough, 5.) because of their eating patterns, they can rapidly increase their body weight. Imagine a baby becoming the size of a large truck in three months. Wow! That’s brutal!

They are known to eat 30 pounds of food in a day. You heard us right—30 POUNDS (the weight of three hefty miniature dachshunds.) Yikes! And it’s that pesky food thing that this story is really about.

An eating binge

The overriding feeling for us was trickery and deceit. It turns out that they had no plans of spinning a cocoon, after all. And furthermore, a butterfly wasn’t even a twinkle in their beady little black eyes. (Did we mention their eyes don’t work very well?) The sad truth is that they only wanted to abuse our cute little cherry-plum tree. We caught on to their devious games while conducting our first photo shoot. Up close, we could see that they were eating the leaves right before our very eyes. At 30 pounds of beautiful purple leaves times two, we figured they would have that tree stripped to the bark within 4-5 days. Well . . . that’s not okay!

Strange little hands

It’s funny how one minute you can be enamored with something and the next minute you despise it. That’s how we felt about those free-loading worms that were wrapping their nasty little brown hands around our beautiful purple leaves—shaving off one row after another, like that first burr haircut I got at Tony’s Barbershop in Beech Grove when I was a kid. Bzzzt, bzzzt, bzzzt, and before you know it you’re as smooth as a cue ball.

So we faced a dilemma. How do you run off caterpillars when they don’t have legs?? Joke. But seriously, what if  they were just loading up on leaves for the main event of cocoon-building. Seeing lacy metamorphosis shells could be soon and right around the next branch. We sure didn’t want to get in the way of that cool process. Hmmm . . . what to do?

Disgusting or Beautiful?

These spongy, hairy, overgrown worms without real legs were devastating our prize foliage. We could conclude that they were  just plain ugly and destroy them to preserve our beautiful tree. Or we could sacrifice our tree with the hopes that one day, those pernicious little trouble-makers might just turn into beautiful butterflies that enchant and delight people all around the world. What a pickle!!

Finally, we made the decision. The answer was that we could spare both the tree and the caterpillars. Within days we carefully relocated Catia and Claudio to the woods behind the house, where they can eat to their heart’s content. Win-win!

Following is a short video of the footage we shot of our visiting caterpillars during the first couple days . . . before we came to momentarily despise them.



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