Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The first caterpillars are here!

I spent five hours yesterday, weeding and edging and mowing my front lawn.  If you know how tiny my front yard is, the number of hours probably surprises you.  It was the first time this year that I did all of those things, and it always takes longer the first time.  I also spent a considerable amount of time hand weeding huge patches of weeds out of my parkway.  With rubber palmed garden gloves, the weeds pull up easily, root and all.  You know how I hate pesticides... and although it was tedious, (theoretically) the weeds are gone for good.  My St. Augustine grass was happy to have its own share of the sunshine again.

This morning after my dog walk I stood in the front, admiring my hard work yesterday.  Some of my butterfly seeds that I planted last week are poking out -- excellent.  And then I did a double take at one of my bronze fennel plants -- caterpillars!  Four of them! 

There are 2 caterpillars in the photo - can you spot them both?
The photo is a little blurry because the dog on the leash was pulling on my arm; it was past her usual breakfast hour and she had other priorities...

At first I thought there were five on my little 6 inch plant, but I think one of them is a skin that one of the caterpillars had shed.  But also I think actually now that I look, I think there are two types of caterpillars -- I'll have to look again when I get home tonight.

I got out the book I bought at the Dallas Botanical Gardens Butterfly House last year, "The Life Cycles of Butterflies," by Judy Burris and Wayne Richards which is chock full of photos of all the various butterflies in all stages of their lives, and this caterpillar will become an Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly.  It says that it likes fennel and dill -- and indeed they are on my fennel plant.  Go figure...

They will eat for a few weeks. "The more it eats, the faster it will grow, but a caterpillar's skin can stretch only a small amount.  Once it reaches its limit, stretch detectors in the joints between the body segments send signals to the brain to trigger the growth of a new, bigger skin underneath the old one.  This process is called molting.  A caterpillar may molt up to five times..."

"The coloration of some caterpillars allows them to avoid hungry predators:  The greens and browns blend in with the environment....Some caterpillars are brightly colored, as if to warn potential predators against eating them... Swallowtail caterpillars have a special defense organ called an osmeterium.  This is an orange or red forked gland that is hidden under the skin behind the head.  When the caterpillar feels threatened, it can shoot out the gland like a snake tongue and touch the predator with it.  If the sudden whiplash movement doesn't spook the intruder, the foul-smelling substance that the grand secretes will offend even a human nose at close range."

"Most caterpillars are solitary eaters, but a few species dine together in groups.  When they feel threatened, all the caterpillars may twitch at the same time, perhaps as a way to scare predators.

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