Encounters Escalate During Fall Months
Most people enjoy encounters with butterflies. These living flowers add
dabs of color and whimsy to our gardens and roadsides. But we aren't as
fond of moths and caterpillars. Moths are drab and reclusive, and caterpillars
have been described as nothing more than creeping plant chompers.
When the calendar rolls around to August and September, caterpillars
are likely to creep from their summer hiding places and into our lives.
Yes, the fall season brings with it numerous encounters of the caterpillar
Immature butterflies and moths are both called caterpillars. The word
caterpillar is based on the Latin catta pilosa, which means hairy cat.
It seems likely that the term caterpillar was first used for immatures
of moths. That is because moth caterpillars are often hairy--covered with
hair and spines.
Scientists note that the amount of hair that a caterpillar possesses
might be a hint as to whether it is to become a butterfly or moth. Butterfly
caterpillars are hairless, while moth caterpillars tend to be hairy. But
several species of moths have caterpillars that are smooth-skinned and
without hair. So, when you discover a hairy caterpillar, you can be certain
that it will turn out to be a moth. A smooth caterpillar will probably
become a butterfly, but not always!
Some of the most recognizable moths spend their immature days crawling
around as hairless caterpillars. These include the flower-feeding moths
known as hummingbird moths. Their caterpillars are called hornworms and
are very smooth-skinned, as anyone who has picked one off a tomato plant
It is the hairy caterpillars that really attract our attention. Some
of the most noticeable are immatures of what are called the giant silkworm
moths. These are the cecropia, promethea and polyphemus moths. Their larvae
are not fuzzy, but they are large caterpillars. Each is nearly 3 inches
in length. Their size, combined with an assortment of spines and knobs,
results in rather impressive-looking caterpillars.
There are three species of the giant silkworm moths common in the eastern
United States. These caterpillars feed on the leaves of hardwood trees.
One is the cecropia. Its larvae are green-colored with studded protrusions
on each segment. The polyphemus caterpillar is also green-colored but
lacks the studded protrusions. It does have tufts of spines emerging from
red spots. The promethea caterpillar is bluish-green in color and has
two short, red horns near the head.
A striking large, green moth with long tails, the luna moth, has a caterpillar
that resembles those of the giant silkworm moths. It also is green in
color with red-marked tuffs of bristles on each segment.
Probably the most fearsome looking of the giant caterpillars is that
of the regal moth. This caterpillar has large, red, curved horns near
the head. It is appropriately called the hickory-horned devil!
The caterpillars of the giant moths are harmless. They look fearsome
and, sometimes, act as if they are trying to bite. There are hairy caterpillars
that really are dangerous because they have stinging spines or hairs.
One such is the Io moth. This green caterpillar has a red-and-white stripe
along the side.
Another stinging caterpillar is called the saddleback. These caterpillars
are slug-shaped and green in color with a brown-and-white saddle-shaped
mark across the middle. The easily recognized color pattern is called
warning coloration, because the caterpillar spines will produce skin irritation
Other fuzzy caterpillars that are noticeable in the fall have been touted
as winter-weather predictors. These so-called wooly bears are said to
predict the severity of the winter, based on thickness of the coat, width
of the black band or direction of travel. The only thing that the wooly
bear caterpillar can predict with accuracy is that winter is on the way.
When fall arrives, all caterpillars stop feeding and crawl around looking
for a place to hibernate. The process is called wandering. So, when you
encounter a wandering caterpillar, the best advice is look but don't touch.
After all, some of those fuzzy caterpillars are armed with stinging hairs.