Archive for the ‘caterpillars’ Category

Fifty Shades of Grayness

July 16, 2012

Pandora Sphinx Caterpiller

Wooly Bear Caterpillar
(Isabella Tiger Moth)

I guess I should have realized that if I invested in fancy new lights, borrowed a cool and quiet generator and picked up a nifty pop-up white sheet contraption, it would rain on the night of my moth program, my favorite of the entire year. I’ve been the naturalist here at Hill-Stead for going on six years, and I’ve tried to offer programs that will excite, educate and entertain. And I’m shameless. I’d stand on my head in the center of Farmington, Ct (where we are located) if it would make people see how exquisite and vital nature is to us, and how much Hill-Stead offers in terms of natural beauty and value.

When I was a child I was scared senseless by moths. Something about their fluttery-ness, and their nighttime habit really blotted out all reason in me.  It was terrible-a naked, irrational phobia. And of course I had only seen the brown and gray jobs (talk about fifty shades of gray!) my mother referred to as “millers”.  “Don’t be afraid, its’ just a miller,” she’d say, as I freaked out.  What the heck is a “miller” anyway?

But later, as I grew as a naturalist I read of fantastic moths, pink and yellow, green, purple-and so important to the ecosystem.  I was hooked-and determined to get over my irrational horror. I bought a moderate set of UV lights, dragged a white sheet out of the closet and brewed up some sticky bait in a bucket. I pretty much try everything that I plan for the museum out in my backyard first, in case of glitches. It wasn’t easy.  The moths fly around your head when you bend near the sheet to examine things and for a while I had to wear one of those big hats with a veil. But in time I didn’t mind the moths brushing against me, and I felt kind of honored to be part of their soft yet scaly world. I taught myself everything I could using the old books that were around, Covell and Holland and a few others. I watched moth websites carefully. To me, it is a hard subject-there are twice as many moth species as butterflies. And as our resources become better we are likely to discover others. There is quite a bit to remember.  I don’t claim to be an expert, but I really want to spread enthusiasm about this wonderful topic.  Moths are as vital to the pollination of plants as bees are, for example.  But I don’t hear too many people extolling their virtues.  Yet.

Huge Geometer Moth I saw on vacation in the Caribbean

“Mothing” is growing in popularity these days, but it isn’t in the everyday vernacular right now. But National Moth Week is coming up soon,July 23-29 and I even have the T-shirt. People ask about it a lot (it has a really big silk moth silhouette on it) so it is a very good ambassador for the whole subject. Since my official Hill-Stead Moth Event was rained out, I’ve changed my plan for participating. I’m having a “Celebrate the Diversity of Life” party at my house. I’m putting up my lights and calling my friends on Wednesday July 25 from sundown until I can’t stand it anymore. You can come too if you want. Just contact the museum and they’ll put you in touch with me. Just don’t freak out when the moths.  You can borrow my hat with the veil.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist


Woolly Bear Time

September 12, 2009



Spoiler Alert! Woolly Bear caterpillars are not indicators of a hard winter to come! Children educated on the American East Coast have been misled! Rural folklore says that if the reddish-brown band around the middle of the caterpillar is narrow, a harsh winter is coming. In reality, the size of the band reflects the age of the caterpillar, with the band growing wider as the larva ages.

It’s no surprise that this familiar creature has a little legend attached to it. The thing is adorable! And they are all over-in yards and pastures, crossing sidewalks, moving about in their determined, furry little way. Kids crow and coo over them. Something this cute and plentiful just has to have a sweet (albeit false) story to go with it.

Another fallacy is that the woolly bear shoots venom from its hairs which can cause injury and swelling. Sometimes those bristly hairs do produce a little contact dermatitis in people with sensitive skin. Still, having observed hundreds of children pick up these hairy wanderers, I have yet to know one who got much more than a tickle. What I have seen is children joyfully “helping” the caterpillar get from one place to another. Sometimes the poor thing is sent in the wrong direction no matter how many times it tries to turn around. While a dilemma for the caterpillar, it is a terrific thing for the children, who experience the excitement and pleasure that interaction with nature brings. Anyway, there is no Woolly Bear shortage. During a short walk on a warm Fall day you can find half a dozen woollies moseying around looking for a winter shelter. Let the children redirect the caterpillar. It does more good than damage.

The Woolly Bear is a moth larva as most caterpillars we find are likely to be. There are more moth species than butterfly, so odds are that caterpillars you see will become moths.

Isabella Tiger Moth

Isabella Tiger Moth

The Woolly Bear will grow into an Isabella Tiger Moth. The Tiger moth family is diverse, and known for their pretty colors. You don’t see them often as caterpillars, with the exception of the Woolly Bear, since many are ground dwellers or even burrow into wood. To make identification more complex, many change color dramatically as they mature.

The Woolly Bear may be plentiful because it will eat nearly anything including grass, dandelion and a variety of other vegetation. Becoming more active around the time of the first frosts, it pokes around for a good spot to sleep away the winter. In spring, woollies become active again, searching for a good feed before spinning a cocoon and maturing into a moth.

Take a lazy walk around the meadow one day between now and the hard frost. Count how many woolly bears you find. You can even let me know by leaving a message here or in the trail log.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist