A friend of mine recently commented that she doesn’t see many caterpillars. As Doug Tallamy has said many times in his lectures on native plants as larval hosts, caterpillars don’t want to be seen because that increases the chance that they’ll be eaten. Caterpillars have several strategies to avoid being seen: staying hidden is one of them.
|Who's in there?|
There are several butterflies whose caterpillars stay hidden during the day and come out at night to feed. Spicebush swallowtail caterpillars are one type - I have yet to find one of these other than rolled up in a leaf.
There are several legume-eating caterpillars that act the same and this year I’ve had a bumper crop of them so I peeked to see what was growing there.
|Amorpha fruticosa in a pot by the pool|
This is my first year growing wild indigo bush, Amorpha fruticosa. I purchased it last year at the fall native plant sale at the State Botanical Garden. I planted it in a big pot and the blooms were fantastic in May.
A few weeks ago, I noticed that the leaves were being bound together in places to create a type of enclosure. I gently pulled apart a leaf and found two orange eyes staring back at me!
|This one might need a bigger size|
|Leaves sown together|
It was the larval form of the silver-spotted skipper butterfly (Epargyreus clarus). I was happy to support them but a little disappointed at not being able to see them growing every day. Of course, this strategy keeps them safe from the birds.
One night this week, I went outside with a flashlight to get a piece of a plant that I was researching. I glanced over at the Amorpha and there were the caterpillars! It was dark and they were crawling all over the plant in relative safety. I went inside and got the camera to take a few pictures with the help of the flashlight. What a treat it was to see them at last.
|The adult silver-spotted skipper on Joe pye weed|
So if you can’t find caterpillars, consider looking for other signs that they might be there: partially eaten leaves, rolled up leaves, or even pellets of caterpillar poop. That will let you know that your plants are indeed supporting them even if you can’t see them.