University of Minnesota

Kidnapped By Caterpillar

Contributed by Ilse Gebhard

One evening last Labor Day weekend, before visiting friends the next day, I set out to dig up a couple of native prairie plants as a “garden-warming" gift. The previous spring we had taken out some alien, invasive honeysuckle bushes, leaving a patch of bare ground. Absolutely nothing grows under these bushes! Bare ground is, of course, an invitation to plant or seed and the only thing I had around at the time was a grocery bag full of chaff left over from cleaning seeds of various composites. Plenty of seeds were left in the chaff because I had grown tired of hand-sifting seed heads smashed by walking around on them with my hiking boots to loosen the seed. Mixing the chaff with moist sawdust, I distributed the mixture on the bare soil, resulting in a nice patch of largely Black-eyed Susans.

But back to my evening's mission. Armed with a garden trowel and a couple of pots, I could not resist checking a Common Milkweed plant along the way for Monarch butterfly eggs or caterpillars. Sure enough, I found a caterpillar. So I trudged back to the house, took off my boots, went inside and put it in a jar.

Resuming my quest, I came to a small side-path along which I had planted some Butterflyweed several years before as another food plant for Monarch caterpillars. The plants were doing their job admirably - as a matter of fact so well that they were having trouble surviving. In spring, the Monarchs arriving from the South, find the tender young plants, lay their eggs, and the munching caterpillars leave nothing but the stalk. This spring and summer I had made it a point to patrol the surviving three plants for eggs and caterpillars and bring them inside to raise. Two of the three plants rewarded me with their bright orange blossoms. So a quick side-trip was needed and another Monarch caterpillar found.

After the second trip back to the house, the light was waning. Crossing the pond inlet on the small footbridge, something white caught my eye. A blooming Turtlehead! And another one! The food plant for the Baltimore butterfly caterpillar. I chuckled to myself as I remembered planting them all along the pond's edge several years ago. Ponds can have mucky edges and ours is no exception. Garden trowel in one hand and a tray of Turtlehead seedlings in the other, I had gone to take a step forward at one point when my knee-high rubber boots decided to stay behind. Saving the seedlings, the only thing tarnished was my dignity as I extricated myself from the muck on all fours. A hosing down and I was good as new. Besides, it was hot and sticky and the cold water felt good. Prone to be distracted from my mission, as you can tell by now, I followed the pond's edge but it was getting too dark to make out any more plants. As I was standing there next to our one and only Flowering Dogwood, a huge green caterpillar jumped out at me. He must have been watching me all along because he knew the routine. He made me go back to the house, take off my boots and put him in a fish bowl. I was totally defenseless. Of course I had to quickly consult the caterpillar book to confirm that he was a Cecropia moth caterpillar. He was 3.5 inches long and 0.75 inches in diameter. His body was bright green with yellow knobs called tubercles along the back, blue ones along the sides and four red ones on the segments near the head. I had released two of these giant silkmoths in spring and maybe he, or for that matter she, was an offspring. By this time I felt a little like Billy in the Family Circus cartoon and in near-darkness finally potted up the plants. Nothing further distracted me, but then, nothing further could top this kidnapping.

Ilse Gebhard volunteers for the Kalamazoo Nature Center, the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, and the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy.

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