Amanda McNulty

Midlands gardening: The value of caterpillars in your yard

amcnult@clemson.eduAugust 29, 2013 

My across-the-street neighbor came practically bursting in the kitchen recently with a large Tupperware container. “What is this thing?” he implored. (Why he thought we were experts on “weird things” is a mystery to me.)

He had absolutely the most fabulous caterpillar I’ve ever seen and although it had spines (scoli is the fancy word) it didn’t have those potentially harmful hairs so I picked that fellow up and we had a wrestling match! No doubt in a way to discourage predators (one site says copperheads love to eat them) it thrashed about quite vigorously.

When he calmed down we exclaimed over his beauty. Truly, he was like a Jean Schlumberger enameled creation with aqua and green areas accented with black spines and a fabulous black spot on his head – probably to look like a giant eye and give pause to birds thinking about having him for lunch.

The hickory horned devil, who becomes the large Regal moth, Citheronia regalis, feeds at night on hickories, walnuts, pecans, and other plants as a larva; not a terribly strict specialist. In the spirit of Rebecca Motte who frightened the devil out of Calhoun County, I took my “devil for the day” to work over in Sumter with a bucket of hickory leaves. During the day, after numerous photo shoots, he seemed to tire and I wondered if the leaves needed refreshing.

I made a mental search of all the trees nearby in downtown Sumter. Although we have lovely plantings, many are imported species. Only magnolia, red maple, bald cypress, and live and willow oaks represented natives and none of those were on my friend’s list of digestible foods. NC Extension’s factsheet included the sad news that these magnificent creatures seem to be declining.

On Oct. 17, the Midlands Master Gardener Symposium promises a daylong learning experience that will leave you inspired to provide foliage for lepidopteron larvae (caterpillars). In the long journey of evolution, many caterpillars have become dependent on only a few plants which they can digest. As we consumers tend to want the newest plant on the market, our residential and commercial landscapes have become filled with showier, trendier, or (dare I say) weedier (harder to kill) plants that cannot support a single caterpillar.

Well, why in the name of all that’s Holy would you want to bring caterpillars into your yard? Almost all birds, even those that eat thistle or sunflowers must feed their babies with regurgitated protein sources – insects! What could possibly be better than a soft-bodied, juicy, packed with protein and fat caterpillar to predigest and then fill your waiting darlings’ gullets with?

Doug Tallamy, featured speaker at the Oct. 17 seminar in Columbia, is a fervent spokesman for biodiversity and all its benefits. He takes a particular interest in the decline in some of our wonderful bird species. As native larval food sources become less available, parent birds must travel greater distances to find food for their young, resulting in less vigorous broods.

Professor Tallamy says we can make a veritable national wildlife corridor out of our very own backyards by choosing plants that specifically support caterpillars. Before you panic, many of these are trees and you’d have to hunt to find those browsing caterpillars, and healthy trees will suffer no damage from their feeding.

Professor Tallamy is not a scold! I’ve heard him speak twice and he makes me feel like I, just a plump woman from the country, can make a difference in promoting a healthy environment. If you join me at this October meeting, you’ll come away feeling like we can plant a swath of supportive foliage across our state and across our country. Help the superstars and the plain Janes of the caterpillar world grow big, juicy, and fat so our feathered friends can pluck them off nearby branches.

Amanda McNulty is an associate extension agent for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service and the host of “Making It Grow!” broadcast weekly on ETV television stations. Website: www.clemson.edu/ extension/hgic/ Check out her blog at the Making it Grow! page at www.scetv.org.

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