Perhaps that should really be MUNCH of the caterpillars because these little creatures are really the ultimate food processors. They eat ravenously, they ingest determinedly, they process interminably, and, yes, they pooh prodigiously. What a life!
They can be covered in bristles: watch these ones as people with sensitive skin often get a rash from touching them because they can contain chemicals to deter predators from eating them. They can be dull to blend in with the vegetation on their favourite food plant. They can be patterned in startling colours and patterns, again as a warning to predators – ‘Don’t eat me!’
These particular caterpillars are the larvae of two moths and one butterfly. The hairy ones are the moths, Oak eggar (Lasiocampa quercus) and Yellow-tail (Euproctis similis), and the spiky black one with white dots is the rather surprisingly coloured caterpillar of the Peacock butterfly (Aglais io).
To the arachnophobes out there, I just want to reassure you that not all webs are made by spiders. Some are home to really cute caterpillars like these that I was lucky enough to spot on a recent walk.
Native to central Europe and southern Britain, these are Lackey moth (Malacosoma neustria) caterpillars, pretty little blue-and-orange-and-white-striped crawlies that live happily together in a silken web they’ve spun for themselves amongst the blackthorn, hawthorn and other trees and shrubs that are their food plants. They began life as eggs that were laid towards the end of last summer but didn’t hatch until this spring, meaning these little creatures will have spent around half their lives as eggs. In a few weeks, when they’re munched their way through plenty of leaves and moulted a few times, these caterpillars will drop to the ground and pupate. Once the summer comes, they’ll hatch and the adult moths will be seen flying in and around these hedgerows during July and August – something to look forward to, though the moth is a little drab in comparison to its offspring.
p.s. I cannot take the credit for today’s catchy title. I pinched it from my friend Mark, who used it to comment on another friend’s Lackey web find on Facebook.
Noun. Pronunciation: /ˈkatəpɪlə/
1. The larva of a butterfly or moth, which has a segmented body resembling a worm with three pairs of true legs and several pairs of leg-like appendages.
1.1. (In general use) any insect larva resembling the larvae of caterpillars and moths, especially that of the sawfly. (Oxford Dictionary)
Here are some examples I’ve spotted of these insect larvae.
These black-and-yellow striped critters are Cinnabar moth caterpillars (Tyria jacobaeae), chewing away on their favourite food plant, ragwort.
The caterpillars of the Parsnip moth (Depressaria pastinacella) build themselves little silken webs within the structure of the umbellifer flowers (in particular Wild parsnip), on which they feed.
A snapshot of a few others I’ve sighted (from left to right): Drinker moth (Philudoria potatoria), Old lady moth (Momo maura), Vapourer moth (Orgyia antiqua), sawfly larva (possibly of the Large rose sawfly, Arge pagana), Ruby tiger moth (Phragmatobia fuliginosa), and, lastly, the wild extravagance of the Pale tussock moth caterpillar (Calliteara pudibunda).
Meet Henderson Cuthert. He’s a 5-spot Burnet moth caterpillar and, though he will never know it, he has been a brilliant help to me in determining whether all the Burnet moths I keep seeing at my local cemetery are 5-spot Burnets or Narrow-bordered 5-spot Burnets. The two moths are almost impossible to tell apart but the length of the hairs on their caterpillars is a determining factor – short for 5-spot, long for Narrow-bordered 5-spot. And it’s likely that there is a colony of just one species at the cemetery rather than both.
You may well wonder why my little friend is called Henderson Cuthbert (and you may well think me more than a little crazy when I explain). The events were as follows:
Day 1: Caterpillar spotted in front of grave of a husband and wife named Henderson. Photos taken, name filed in memory so I could remember where he was located.
Day 2: I had a sneaky feeling he was getting ready to pupate so returned to see what was happening … and he was, though he had only spun the thinnest of coverings at that stage. The weather was lousy and he looked like getting hammered by a nearby bush so I relocated his piece of grass to the grave opposite. The surname on that headstone was Cuthbert (thus Henderson Cuthbert).
But wait, there’s more …
Day 3: Initially, I thought the pupa had to be examined to determine species, so I returned again and carefully brought Henderson Cuthbert home with me, though I was rather devastated that he might have to sacrifice his life in the name of biological recording.
Day 4: I discovered my mistake, sent photos rather than pupa for identification, and little H.C. gets to live to be a moth. Delight!
Day 5: That’s tomorrow. I will take H.C. back to the cemetery so he can complete his life cycle in peace.
Many thanks to County Recorder Dave Slade for help in identifying Henderson Cuthbert.
You never know what might be lurking under a piece of bark on a dead tree but I certainly didn’t expect this little guy, especially in the middle of winter. It’s the caterpillar of the Large Yellow Underwing moth (Noctua pronuba) and, as well as being one of Britain’s most common moths, it can also be found throughout Europe and the Middle East, in central Asia and in North America. This moth also migrates so often arrives in southern Britain in huge numbers.
Though the moth is a harmless nectar-feeder, the caterpillar is a ‘cutworm’, a nasty critter that chews through the base of herbaceous plants, both in the garden and on the farm, causing the plants to die. Though I would have expected it to overwinter as a pupa, it seems these minibeasts usually overwinter in their final caterpillar stage and, in mild weather, even emerge to continue feeding. This little guy certainly had a cosy spot for himself under the tree bark … until I came along.
Big thanks to Steve Ogden at Wildlife Insight, who very kindly identified this caterpillar for me. Check out his most excellent website on British moths and butterflies, birds and things to see when watching the sea.