On Real Very Hungry Caterpillars

A few weeks ago some cute caterpillars started appearing in my yard. I was busy preparing for my craft fair at the time, and hardly spent any time in the garden. I noticed the little crawlies, but didn’t pay them much attention.

At one point I took a break from sewing to peek at the newspaper. Our local paper mentioned a caterpillar-epidemic in my town. Somehow, I didn’t connect this tidbit of information to MY caterpillars, and just didn’t think much of it.

Anyhow, I have this agreement with wildlife, you see. Critters of all sorts are entitled to live peacefully in their own habitat outside, as long as they leave the inside of my house to me and my family. How they conduct their lives is their own business.

As the days went by, however, I found more and more caterpillars crawling all over my windshield when I drove the kids to school. When I got out of the car, more and more of them stuck to my hair. They were dangling from the neighbor’s oak tree, whose overhanging branches cover most of our driveway. It started getting a bit annoying.

One day my daughter made an atypical demand: “Mom,” she said,  “you should kill those caterpillars.” But how could I kill caterpillars? I’m vegetarian! And, like everybody else, I raised my kids on “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” story. Caterpillars are cute. They’re fuzzy and hairy. And they turn into butterflies… OK, not always butterflies. Some turn into moths. Like those very caterpillars in my yard, which, I later learned, were all western tussock moth caterpillars. But I like moths, too. When I was working on my Dare! quilt, I did research on moths and realized some were as beautiful, if not MORE beautiful, than butterflies. I just couldn’t kill them.

A few days later I happened to look out of a second-floor window. I saw my neighbor’s oak tree from above, and noticed something was off about it. It took me a while to realize what it was: all the ends of the branches, even the ones on the very top, were chewed to the bone. The new spring growth was all eaten away, about 20 inches of it on each and every branch! Someone badly chewed many of the old leaves as well…

That was when I realized that caterpillars weren’t that cute after all.

But I was still busy preparing for the fair.

Another week went by. I was bringing the garbage bins back in from the curb one evening, when I noticed my dwarf avocado tree. I planted that tree about three years ago. It didn’t grow much the first couple of years. Early this spring it finally spouted new branches and leaves! I was looking forward to seeing the tree grow. But when I saw it now, it was completely ravaged!

The tender, new leaves were entirely gone. Most of the old ones were badly shredded, too! I suddenly knew what Pharaoh felt like when the plagues hit!

This was not cute AT ALL! This, my friends, was a declaration of war!

The very next morning I drove to a hardware store, where I bought a bottle of an all-insect pesticide. I returned home promptly, and sprayed the tens of caterpillars on my avocado tree. Then, I sprayed their comrades on the nearby bush. I sprayed the ones feasting on my roses, and on the plant next to those. In fact, I sprayed any caterpillar I saw! I came back in the afternoon and sprayed some more. Came out again the next day, and the one after that…

By the end of the week I could find no more live caterpillars. I thought I won. Then my neighbor pointed out the cocoons. Western tussock moth cocoons now cover his oak tree like a cream-colored fuzzy blanket. They are high up, of course, on the trunk and upper-most branches, way out of our reach…

Soon moths will hatch, I know. They will lay more eggs. And next year, new caterpillars will crawl all over my plants… But worry not. I will be ready for them this time! Me and my spray bottle.

You might wonder what became of my avocado tree. I was sure it was done for. In the last few days, however, it started showing signs of new growth. There’s still hope for it, it seems! I’m watching it closely, just in case…