On Friday, I talked about respecting the bees. Today we’ll talk about respecting caterpillars. That one’s both a little harder and a little easier.
On the one hand, caterpillars are a lot less threatening. They don’t sting, bite or pinch–for the most part. There is a small subset of them that can cause some damage, but overall, most of the caterpillars we encounter in the backyard are pretty benign. The kids can pick them up and play with them and nothing’s going to happen.
But when it comes to damage to the plants, well, that’s a different story. Talk to an entire subset of the population about gypsy moths and they’ll tell you horror stories! And what was it that did the damage? Not the moths, of course, but the ravenous caterpillars, eating their way through entire forests!
Fortunately, most of us are unlikely to encounter that sort of devastation in our lifetime (I hope) and we are even more unlikely to encounter it if we garden organically. One of the reasons we want to attract caterpillars is that they are such great natural food for our bird population. And one of the reason we want to encourage our natural bird population to come and feast in our yard is to help us balance an over-abundance (should there be one) of caterpillars).
So it works out nicely–what they call a symbiotic relationship in nature–between birds and caterpillars (although I’m sure the caterpillars that end up as lunch don’t think so!)
But what if you are trying to attract butterflies–which of course spend part of their lives as caterpillars? That’s where it gets interesting.
Many butterfly caterpillars have developed unique adaptations to discourage the birds from hunting them.
Some disguise themselves in creative ways–they want to make themselves look bigger, scarier or perhaps like something unappetizing.
Others–and the monarch is famous for this–ingest the milkweed, which is poisonous to bird and therefore become inedible themselves. The butterfly too is inedible.
This article has a simple explanation. If you’re really interested, get a book on caterpillars. They are absolutely fascinating!