Friday Book – Field Guide to the Caterpillars of Great Britain and Ireland

Dear Readers,

Who would have thought that a field guide to caterpillars could invoke a trip down Memory Lane? When I was a little girl, I spent a lot of my time in our pocket-handkerchief sized garden in Stratford, East London, looking for caterpillars. How I loved them! I could watch the way that they ate ever-increasing half-circles out of the leaves for hours. I adored the feeling of the little hook-y legs at the front of their bodies, and the slight pull of the suckers at the back. We often had garden tiger moth caterpillars, who were as furry and sleek as kittens, and I had no worries about letting them walk all over my hands. I feel so sad for the many children who don’t get to mess about in the dirt these days: I invented all my own games, and was forever finding various creatures and putting them into sandwich boxes with their food plant to see what would happen.

Sometimes, what happened was horrific. I well remember the shudder that went down my back when one of my tiger moth caterpillars, who I had thought was just about to pupate, erupted instead into a mass of parasitic wasp grubs. What an education into the relationships between the different animals that inhabited the garden, though! I’m sure my parents didn’t know half of what I got up to. They were certainly displeased at the slug invasion that followed me popping some interesting-looking eggs into the air-brick under the house, but I’m not sure if I ever confessed to that one.

My most successful rearing was of four cinnabar moth caterpillars – these tiger-striped larvae eat ragwort, which was a plentiful weed in the East End. I remember running around our local street and picking the plant from the few remaining bomb sites round about. I did everything right with these guys, and watched them slow down and then turn into lacquer-red pupae, as beautiful as any Japanese netsuke. I put them in a big sweetie jar with some twigs so that they could climb up and stretch their wings when they finally emerged. I remember that I put the jar with the gas metre under the stairs, so that it was cold and dark. I checked on them every day. And one day, when I looked, the jar was filled with three perfect military-green and red moths, and one poor dead one, who seemed to have emerged but then somehow got stuck between the side of the jar and a twig.

What a palaver ensued! I felt horribly guilty. First we released the living moths close to a patch of ragwort which I’d been protecting from Dad’s weed-eradication instincts for several months. Then I dragged my brother into a funeral ritual for the remaining moth, who was buried in a Woodbine cigarette packet under a fragment of tile remaining from the creation of our 1950’s fireplace. I seem to remember a poem written on the tile in wax crayon. Looking back, I reckon that a 75% survival rate was probably better than the moths would have done in nature, but, as always, I remember the failure, not the success.

And sometimes, caterpillars can give us a shock. My Mum was on her way to work one day when she found a most surprising creature on a twig in one of the gardens in the City.

“It was waggling its tail”, she said, “and it was as fat as my finger!”

“So what did you do, Mum?” I asked.

“Well, I thought it looked a bit vulnerable standing there where anyone could see it”, she said, “so I tried to get it onto another twig and it stood up on its back legs and spat at me!”

Yes, Dear Reader, my Mum was trying to rescue a puss moth caterpillar who clearly didn’t want to be rescued. They can spit formic acid if they feel they are being harassed, however kindly the intent. They used to be a fairly common (if spectacular) sight on willow and aspen, but I haven’t seen one for many years. Maybe I need to spend more time just mooching about without an agenda, rather than hurrying through my gardening tasks.

And so, this book is highly recommended. The illustrations, by Richard Lewington who also did the drawings for the Guide to Garden Wildlife, give you an idea of the sheer range of caterpillar forms and colours. The text tells you exactly what you can see, when, and where. Most Lepidoptera are caterpillars for much longer than they are adults, and so it can be a way of finding out what you are nurturing in your gardens. There is a lot of attention paid to growing plants for pollinators, but growing plants for their caterpillars is at least as important, and the book also contains a list of foodplants. All in all a worthwhile investment if you have any spare cash laying about (as if) and currently on sale at the NHBS bookshop.

Field Guide to the Caterpillars of Great Britain and Ireland by Barry Henwood and Phil Sterling




9 thoughts on “Friday Book – Field Guide to the Caterpillars of Great Britain and Ireland

  1. sllgatsby

    I have just begun watching last year’s series of Springwatch, which I’d never heard of, but we Americans can now get on BritBox. They had a master gardener on there talking about what she’s going to do with the garden that came with her new house. It’s full of neglected greenery, but quite dead as far as bugs and birds go. She was talking about how your garden plants should show holes and nibble marks so that you know you’re attracting the right insects for the local birds. I confess I never thought about it that way. I always feel like a failure when my plants look moth-eaten! I’ll think about it differently from now on. I draw the line at tent caterpillars go though.

    1. Bug Woman

      I must be doing well, my plants are well-nibbled! And we have several sorts of tent caterpillars. Some, like the ermine moths, make the place look unsightly for a few weeks but don’t actually seem to harm the plants (and the moths are very pretty). The oak processionaries that I wrote about earlier this week are a bit of a nightmare though. Some countries are experimenting with attracting lots more caterpillar-eating birds but in the short term they can be a real menace.

  2. Anne

    Another fascinating and useful book in your collection: thank you for sharing the memories it sparked. I am grateful that we had a very ‘natural’ upbringing as far as exploring nature went; catching tadpoles, unearthing antlions, collecting snails … we have never used insecticides in our garden and I tend to let things be. If leaves get chomped, so be it. I like to think of it as a patch of nature’s bounty for those creatures that need it more than I do. My need is pleasure and relaxation while theirs is the sustenance of life.

    1. Bug Woman

      Amen to that! And I’d love to see an antlion, though there are plenty of dramas going on with all the other creatures. Gardens all over the world are becoming an invaluable resource for insects who are finding agricultural land a dangerous desert.

  3. Fran & Bobby Freelove

    There are such interesting caterpillars out there. At the moment we’re watching with interest the clusters of Peacock caterpillars. We whole heartily agree with Anne, all these creatures are here for a reason. We have lovely gardens and never use insecticides, instead we have birds, frogs, hedgehogs and foxes, give us that any day to a ‘perfect’ sterile garden.

    1. Bug Woman

      I love peacock caterpillars, such spiky little things! And 100% agree about insecticides, and garden poisons in general. I was reading the other day about how many owls and other predators are poisoned because folk insist on poisoning the rats and mice in their gardens and outbuildings.

  4. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    I’m not sure why, but I didn’t get an email for this post… πŸ˜₯ Good job I came to look. I wanted to let you know there is a Damselfly/Dragonfly quiz heading your way, any second now… 😊

  5. Pingback: Wednesday Weed – Crack Willow | Bug Woman – Adventures in London

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