Friday, August 5, 2016

Does everybody have to be a butterfly this very minute?

 (I'm going through my unpublished posts. This one was written years ago....YEARS. The majority of this caterpillar business took place in the summer of 2011.)

That's what I thought last summer after my newly planted coneflowers were taken down by newly relocated checkerspot butterflies and their resulting newly hatched eggs. I had brought in a potted plant from outdoors that was covered in what I thought was bird poop...but when I looked at it closely before spraying it in the sink, those little poop blips turned out to be something else entirely.

My wafer ash ((Ptelea trifoliata) was covered with Giant Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillars, six of them, all excellent bird poop mimics....which is the perfect camouflage for a growing caterpillar because who is going to swoop down and grab something that looks like fresh bird poop (they actually have a sheen to them!)?

A momma Giant Swallowtail Butterfly had found my tiny wafer ash tree that I got at a native plant sale earlier in the year. How did she ever find it? How? These caterpillars will only eat plants in the Rutaceae family (citrus is included in there) and I don't think more than two plants in that family are native to this area....and since I've never seen a prickly ash or wafer ash sold at any nursery and I have never run into a prickly ash or wafer ash on my stompings through my Kansas forest, I was very impressed with how that butterfly found this tiny plant sitting on my deck steps in my suburban Missouri backyard.

The little caterpillars got bigger every day. Three days from when I discovered them, this one had already shed his old skin (and then must have turned around and eaten it because it was gone later in the day).

They still looked like bird poop, but another thing started to develop to keep predators away...a snake/crocodile thing happening to their front ends.

You don't think their heads look like snakes?

How about this?

It was fascinating to see the pseudo "orbits" develop where eyes should be...and in that depression, a colored spot appeared that looked just like an eye. Their actual eyes and mouth are under all that camouflage stuff going on on top. Sort of like the large puppet dragon you see in Chinese New Year parades....the one that is carried through the streets by all those people hiding under it.

Here's a picture of what the real caterpillar head looks like under that poop costume of his...

When they got big, they started to "monorail" on the stems, taking in the sun, the view, who knows. I just know they had no worries about anything wanting to eat them. There was a certain confidence about them.

This is six days after I discovered them. Look how big (when I first met them, they were only about 3/4" long). They were pretty good about eating every single leaf part of that wafer ash.

More monorailing or planking in the sun... You can just make out the human eye designs on their sides (as if looking like bird poop and a snake is not enough to scare off a predator!). Now they have things going on on their sides to further scare off anything that might want to mess with them.

Every morning I'd go out and see how they were doing and there they'd be, full tummies monorailing happily in the morning sun...getting bigger every single day.

But that wafer ash tree was quickly running out of leaves...and I was hoping they'd become butterflies soon because fall was coming and they were nearly out of food!

It didn't take long for me to consider them pets.

Look at those chubby little legs!

I was getting attached to the little guys and needed to find a food source fast... because the wafer ash was no more.

In the morning I would find them scouting for new wafer ashes to eat.

I had a small orange tree (Poncirus trifoliata) I bought at Powell Gardens the previous year and since it is in the citrus family, the caterpillars would be able to eat it. One of the caterpillars settled in to chow down on it. He ate a little bit but that wafer ash was more delicious and still in his memory and so every morning he and his siblings would wander off in search of the deliciousness they craved. I would set them back on the orange tree and discovered they had even one or two more things in their defense repertoire...

When they're disturbed and get mad about that, they stick out their "tongue" (which comes out of the top of their head) and emit a big stink that smells like a big pile of sweaty socks. Yuck (even though it's weirdly entertaining).

I went out and bought them a lime tree at a nursery and coincidentally I was told that the exact same caterpillars had been picked off the lime tree that morning. Sad news for them but at least I knew the lime tree had not been treated with insecticide.

But the lime tree was......not that interesting. And then one by one, the caterpillars just disappeared. I'd find them on weird spots on the deck and put them back on their unwanted food source but then they would wander off again and eventually they were gone. They were pretty big so I hope they crawled off somewhere and turned themselves into butterflies. I missed them.

What I learned....if you have something delicious to eat, they will come. Once they eat everything around them that is delicious, they will leave. What did I do? Ordered four more wafer ashes so I'll be better prepared next spring.

So what happened one year later after I planted the same wafer ash on my land in Kansas?

There they were....

Wafer ash leaves, even when coated with dust from a gravel road, is still the most delicious thing to eat in all of Kansas and Missouri.

And once again, when the deliciousness was gone, those little stinkers (literally!) were gone again too.