Natural Perspectives: Little ones fascinated with caterpillars

I was awakened one morning last week with three little hands thrust into my face, each with a large white caterpillar on it. Good thing I'm a biologist and not fazed by such things.

I had gone down to San Diego to babysit our three granddaughters while Vic stayed home to teach his classes.

I arrived in the evening after the girls had gone to bed. I was to take care of them all the next day while their parents were at work. As soon as the girls awakened in the morning, they retrieved their pet silkworms from the shoebox where they had been happily munching on mulberry leaves. With a silkworm apiece, they dashed to where I was still sleeping.

"Wook, Nana Woo," the three exclaimed in unison. "We have silkwohms!"

Fortunately, our daughter-in-law, Nicole, had warned me about the silkworms. Five-year-old twins Allison and Lauren had been given four silkworms by their preschool teacher. Along with the caterpillars came a bag of mulberry leaves, which are the only things that silkworms eat. The girls were to feed mulberry leaves to the silkworms until they began to spin their cocoons. Then the girls will have to wait three weeks until the silkmoths hatch from the cocoons. After that, the girls will get to watch the silkmoths mate and lay eggs.

Three-year-old Megan was terribly excited about the presence of silkworms in the house. The smooth white caterpillars were thicker than her fingers and just as long. She had learned to pick them up very gently and place them on her finger until their little sucker feet attached. She would have carried them around all day if I had let her. I told her that the caterpillars needed to eat. She reluctantly put her caterpillar back into the shoebox, also provided by the preschool teacher.

Next to picking the silkworms up and carrying them around, Megan's favorite activity was feeding them mulberry leaves. Soon she had placed all the remaining mulberry leaves into the shoebox with the four silkworms. I had to keep taking the leaves out and putting them back into a glass of water so they would stay fresh until needed.

I certainly had arrived at an auspicious time. By 10 a.m., the first caterpillar began spinning its cocoon. I thought that we should call Papa Vic and let him know what the silkworms were doing. Megan wanted to talk to him first.

"Papa Bic, the silkwohms are making a ta-toon!" she shouted into the phone. Then she ran back to the shoebox to watch.

Allison was willing to talk to Papa Vic a bit longer than Megan. She informed him very excitedly that the silkworms had pooped. That's about all the caterpillars did, eat mulberry leaves and poop. But the girls were fascinated.

Just a few days earlier, Vic and I had had a close encounter of a butterfly kind in our plum tree. I hadn't been aware of it, but the caterpillar of a tiger swallowtail had been munching on the leaves of our plum tree. There are so many leaves on that tree that a single caterpillar didn't do much damage.

I hadn't noticed the cocoon either. But I did notice a beautiful, newly emerged swallowtail pumping up its wings early in the morning. I called Vic out to see. The wings were still folded. It takes butterflies an hour or so to pump fluid into their folded wings so that they are stiff enough for them to fly. By afternoon, it had soared off into the heavens, searching for a mate with which to continue the cycle of life.

I recently bought a native milkweed with beautiful yellow and red flowers for our yard. I picked up the plant at Armstrong Garden Centers. Monarch butterflies are attracted to milkweeds. And before I even got it planted, I noticed a monarch laying eggs on the leaves. In a couple of weeks, we'll have little caterpillars on the plant.

Bolstered by the success with my first plant, I picked up a couple of bloodflower milkweeds (Asclepsis curassavica) at Tree of Life Nursery last week. Narrow-leaf milkweed is another great plant for attracting Monarch butterflies.

I deliberately plant flowers that will attract butterflies, not just to provide the adults with nectar but to feed the larvae as well. But it's hard to resist my gardener's urge to squash caterpillars. The only ones I kill are the caterpillars of non-native cabbage moths that eat my cabbages and cauliflowers.

Some years we have a lot of Western swallowtails hatch from the parsley that grows in my herb garden. And in other years, we have caterpillars from mourning cloak butterflies. I love seeing all the different butterflies that come into our organic yard. We've had pygmy blue butterflies, fiery skippers, painted ladies and even a Lorquin's admiral. I was thrilled to find three larvae of a giant swallowtail one year in our orange tree.

One of the keys to growing beautiful butterflies in the yard is to have an all-organic yard. We don't use herbicides or pesticides. We grow plenty of herbs and native flowers that provide nectar and support both adult butterflies and their caterpillars. We're proud that our pesticide-free yard is safe for birds, bees, butterflies and precious grandchildren.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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