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.