24 September 2009

Is there an entomologist in the (blogosphere) house?

So I'm outside this afternoon, walking around psyching myself up for my first post of autumn and determined to take the high moral ground and be cheerful and all that. I'm taking photos for a post about fruits and seeds when something on the red osier dogwood catches my eye.

"Curious," I say to myself. "How on earth did a bird manage to poop on the underside of a leaf?" I look closer and realize it's some sort of caterpillar, resting up after his meal and preparing to moult.

I meet one of his brothers/sisters/siblings, fresh out of its old skin, hungry for more munchies.

Then I discover quite a few more siblings, in various sizes and stages of growth.

They're hungry little suckers, obviously. Fortunately, this is a stand of red osier, and can take some chewed leaves with no problem. So far, anyway.

"Do you MIND? I'm trying to get undressed here!" Ooops. Pardon me, M. Caterpillar.

"Does this dress make me look fat?" Um, no, not at all. Despite how much you've been eating.

Okay, does anyone know who these creatures are, or are going to be? Because I've no idea. I'm guessing they are moths rather than butterflies (don't know why I'm guessing that, other than this is the season for pesky moths elsewhere) and are probably a nuisance. But I could be all wrong about that.

Whatever the case, I'm going to let nature police herself. I see no reason to wage any sort of warfare, biological or otherwise, unless these critters plan to take over. A look around the yard seems to indicate they're host-specific, but again, I really don't know and invite identifications.

These baldfaced wasps don't attack caterpillars, so far as I know, but they fascinate me. So long as they're not being aggressive, that is. I've never been stung by one, probably because I just watch them and let them go about their business.

We have a LOT of garden spiders, and I'm thinking about taking a few of them around to the dogwoods, just in case. Maybe they'll develop a taste for caterpillars to go along with the assorted foolish flies and other critters they've caught. Whatever the case, I'm just going to observe what happens next.

Edited to add: It seems my visitors are the larvae of the dogwood sawfly, Macremphytus tarsatus! I hit Google with a steely glint in my eye, because I love puzzles, and found a photo that looked remarkably like mine. And guess who took it? None other than our friend Nan Ondra at Hayefield. She, of course, had the problem about a month ago, which seems apt because she's about a month ahead of us in terms of plant growth. Nan writes that Btk wouldn't work on these if I did decide I was irked with them, but horticultural oil or insecticidal soap will. I'm going to go with laissez-faire, however, unless they get too pugnacious. Guess I was right about them being host-specific, too.


  1. Jodi,
    Bet you didn't think it'd be me who answered, poet girl by day, entomologist by night. ;-) I love bugs. Used to write regularly about this stuff for Canadian Wildlife magazine. Got out my field guide and am pretty sure this is a butterfly caterpillar. Looks very much like the Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar, found in Southern Canada and u.s., can't explain why so many on that dogwood, they are supposed to be found in gardens, meadows, river courses, open habitats. I am still looking but that's my first guess.
    Thanks for the challenge!

  2. Wow, Jodi, I can't wait to hear what they are! I haven't seen them down here, thank goodness, despite their newly-moulted beauty. There are a few too many of them for me to enjoy! But I certainly did enjoy this priceless post! Thanks for spreading good cheer on an overcast day.

  3. You've set me off on a merry chase. I'll be back if I find out who your friends are.

  4. Sorry Jodi, after going through 450 pages of thumbnails at bugguide.net I've come up blank. Looks like no one has submitted a photo of your mystery caterpillar yet or I just plain missed it.

    Maybe another clue besides visual would help. What do they taste like?

  5. They sure do look like some kind of saw fly to me....Their voracious appetites make me think...Not a friend to your shrub! Maybe dogwood sawfly? Good luck! gail

  6. Jodi, we also have so many spiders this year, that I feel surrounded! They are everywhere.

  7. I thought they looked familiar. When you mentioned they were on your dogwoods I thought of Nan's post. It's amazing how much you can learn from blogging!

  8. Nature is so clever how she offers protection for some little caters by having them look like bird droppings... the final instar is rather handsome. I gather they make a cocoon and sleep over in your garden for the winter. Fabulous photos and text... I really enjoyed visiting. Good Luck with the critters! Carol

  9. This time of year really brings out the spiders. I guess they are going for the last hurrah. You can go to whatbugisthis.com and find out if no one knows what these caterpillars are.

  10. Isn't is amazing to observe life in the garden that never sleeps! Wise to have your camera and keen sense of humor near. Happy Autumn, dear jodi!

  11. Jodi,
    I'm glad you got your caterpillars identified. I didn't know what they were, but can identify with your situation. Last year I had about that many little black caterpillars eating my sunflowers, and a few green ones eating my new hibiscus plant. People from the cottage garden and butterfly forums on ivillage assured me that the plants wouldn't be killed, so I let them be, as you are doing so far.

    I plant some things on purpose for the butterflies and caterpillars. If they choose something else, I have to make a decision if I can handle it or not. My comfort level of having chewed up leaves has gone up. I enjoyed reading the experience from your point of view.

  12. Interesting, Jodi. I think the more we learn about the creatures around us the more we're willing to forgo perfection.

  13. I'm not sure if I'm glad I visited today or not - the photos are fascinating and it is great that you happened to be there at these important moments in the life-cycles of these little beings. However - and maybe it is just the mood I am in (!) but I am also feeling pretty repelled by the caterpillars. I think I have had enough of them in my own life for this year. When I see one on its own, I like it. When I see a few, I find them interesting. When there are massses of them all chomping away - I find I want to run away! (And we're just coming out of the can't look anywhere without seeing caterpillars season.) I do hope they are species specific - at least you know where you are then!


  14. What amazing creatures -- I hope they onely prune your tree a bit.

    There is a bird-dropping spider in Australia that really does look like a bird poo!

  15. I have three garden spiders in the same raspberry patch. I've never considered a spider relocation program. I'd like to move one to the grapes and one to the blueberries. So...umm...how exactly would one go about it?

  16. I didn't read all the way down your post until I'd run for my "Caterpillars of Eastern North America" book, to find what your caterpillar was. I decided it was probably the Dogwood Sawfly, confirmed it online with images on Google and then I went back to read the rest of your post, finding you'd already gotten an answer. LOL. This is a great book that I consult on a regular basis.

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE insects and get really excited when I find one in the garden. I HAVE to know what it is and of course, take photos. I sure didn't used to be like that. That's what gardening will do for ya - instill a wonderful fascination with the rest of nature.

  17. A mystery and a solution all in one. Where can you find that but on a blog. I haven't seen these critters but will be on the lookout. I have several other species of sawflies and they are a nuisance although the wrens seem to like the rose sawfly larvae. Time for these leaves to drop anyway.

  18. Jodi: Great pictures - makes the little critters look quite appealing!

  19. What nasty little beasties. I remember reading Nan's post about them & thinking how glad I am that they aren't here. (Knock, knock.) But your post has me thinking maybe I'd better go out & check.

  20. have never seen these caterpillars before - suspect we may not have them in Europe. But loved the post!

  21. I see Nan from Hayefield's post was already mentioned here. I just got finished reading it. She chose to leave them be for now, too.

  22. Cool caterpillars! Every year I try and identify the caterpillars and bugs--only to find I have to go through the whole thing again a year later. This year I'm remembering to start a whole new bug folder in Bridge so I have a bug library!


  23. Nice work on the ID by Nan Ondra! There's a giant swallowtail larvae that's nicknamed the Bird Poop Caterpillar here, Jodi - but since its host is citrus, I figured you were safe ;-]

    Perhaps we should be grateful that many chomping insects are host specific - with no red osiers in Austin, there might not be sawflies to worry about.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  24. Mystery solved! Although I'm afraid I would have told her that her new dress DID make her look fat, just for inviting herself to lunch! :)

  25. PS -- I just showed the mystery critter to Charlie who said, "I've seen those before. I think they're called Squish!" Eeeww. :)

  26. I have these this year Jody and did last year as well. Am worried they will host on the dogwood trees on the property although have only found them on the Red Osier. Do you have anymore info to offer regarding that. Think you still have my email. Thank you.

    1. I don't have any more information than what is posted at the end of the article, Brenda, that horticultural or dormant oil will apparently work on the dogwood sawflies. I haven't seen them on any other dogwoods so I suspect they might be species-specific and aren't a problem for things like Cornus kousa.


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