Woolly Bully…

Click for closeup view

I spied this autumn colored caterpillar making its way across the the pine needles and miniature thyme yesterday.  At first glance I thought it might be our most common banded woolly bear without the black bands encircling both ends, the size of which is said to predict a mild or severe winter. But it was not a banded woolly bear.

There are many species in the “woolly bear” or “woolly worm” family with the characteristic thick bristles that cover the caterpillar’s body. I am undecided which of two woolly bears our orange caterpillar is. Caterpillars can be tricky to identify because of their color variations but I believe this little visitor is either a salt marsh caterpillar, the larva of a Acrea moth (Estigmene acrea) or a yellow bear, the larva of a Virginian tiger moth (Spilosoma virginica).

Click to see a white Virginia tiger moth up close

The Yellow Bear is a fairly common Virginia tiger moth larva that is seen in the fall of the year as it crosses roads and paths seeking a spot for hibernation. The color of the yellow bear can vary from yellow to orange to almost black. The salt marsh caterpillar is common in our area and, in numbers, can be a pest in our vegetable gardens. None are invading our vegetables though. Both larvae develop into lovely and similar tiger moths. I gently picked the caterpillar up (carefully as the bristles can be irritating) and as characteristic of all woolly bears, it immediately curled into a tight ball as a protective measure. I reached down and allowed it to roll from my palm and it quickly made its way over and under the fall leaf litter.

During the summer months, I will often keep a light burning for a couple of hours at night to attract and study a wide variety of moths and insects that settle on the porch wall. The tiger moths are steady visitors, especially the Virginia Tiger Moth with its fuzzy white thorax and its fringed edges on the wings that open to reveal splashes of orange on the abdomen. Because I see so many of the moths at night, I’m leaning toward my visiting woolly bear being a yellow bear caterpillar, however, I’m hoping for a positive ID from someone out there.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Are You A Good Host?

If you are a good host and your invited dinner guest is the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly, there is a set menu you should provide.  Your guests, male and female, will arrive dressed in sleek formal black with tails.  Adorning the outfit of the female are bright yellow markings and a row of iridescent blue spots between rows of yellow spots at the base.  The male will have a yellow band near the edge of the wings.  Completing the look is a dashing red spot on each wing that forms a dot when the wings touch.

Black swallowtail caterpillarsWe have all have seen the fetching Eastern Black Swallowtail merrily dancing in our gardens amongst the nectar plants like phlox, thistle, butterfly bush and purple verbena but to encourage these lovelies, your party should include host plants as well.

Host plants in the carrot family include parsley and dill, fennel, rue, carrots and Queen Anne’s Lace.  My butterfly rule of thumb is one plant for me and two for my guests. Dill and parsley grow in sunny beds around my day lilies, my roses and peonies, forming a green and airy foundation for any plant.  Butterfly eggs are laid and eggs hatch.  In no time you will see the young caterpillars in vibrant stripes of black, chartreuse, cream and yellow.  Up one stem of parsley and down another they go.  Eat is the name of the game and molt is what they do to fatten up. Parsley disappears and dill disappears but, not to worry, the damage is fully cosmetic. The plants recover.  Soon the plump youngsters are ready to pupate, form a chrysalis, and within 1-2 weeks, an adult emerges fully dressed for the next party.

Providing a habitat for the Black Swallowtail is fun, easy, educational and good for the garden.  It’s time to stop squishing those parsley caterpillars and share the abundance of nature.  Be a good host to the Black Swallowtail butterfly.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

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