A couple days later, though, we stumbled upon a handful of Tiny Little Smokey clones all crawling around on a potted plant on our back deck. Will delighted in transporting them from a leaf to his arm and letting them crawl around on his neck and arms. He had four on him at one time and was feeling like a caterpillar whisperer of sorts.
“Mommy,” he said, “maybe I can be a scientist when I grow up. I want to be a scientist and grow up taking care of animals. I want to take care of caterpillars.”
This seemed like a lovely career goal to me and we’d begun to do a little research on our backyard caterpillars that made me feel less guilty about potentially killing them off if we proved to be lousy caterpillar caregivers. We’d identified the caterpillars as Eastern Tent Caterpillars and a little reading soon led me to realize that while they’re kind of pretty in the caterpillar stage, they do a lot of damage to fruit tree leaves and are widely regarded as pests. (They also turn into drab gray moths, rather than brilliant butterflies – but I’ve never been one to discriminate when it comes to wing color.)
I read that when it comes to raising caterpillars even though you may accidentally kill your captives, they probably stand a better chance of surviving with you than with cruel nature, which in its various guises has a tendency to gobble up caterpillars by the hundreds. I also read that it’s normal for caterpillars to get stationary as they prepare to go into cocoon mode. I’m not sure when that will be for the tent caterpillars, but I think they won’t be emerging as moths until early summer.
In any case, we decided to make a second stab at keeping a caterpillar. Will chose the caterpillar who he thought seemed to like him most and named him “Friendy.” We tried to gather a sampling from as many different leaves as possible from our yard so that we could try to determine Friendy’s dietary preferences. Actually he seems to prefer the leaf of a pear tree I stole from a neighbor’s yard to anything we foraged from our back yard, so this caterpillar-keeping business may reduce me to regular tree leaf theft.
So far Friendy’s been doing more pooping than eating, and he’s gone pretty stationary on us too, but a swift poke of the leaves sends him crawling. Will is already preparing for the fact that Friendy may not live to see moth stage. And he’s determined that since Friendy is now officially our pet, we will have to dig a grave for him in the backyard if he doesn’t make it to mothhood. Because he’ll need to be buried with all his leaves, Will’s already decided that he’ll need a larger headstone than the one we crafted for our guppy Zoe. I’d never imagined having a pet cemetery in miniature like the one we now see in our future.
If you have any caterpillar-keeping advice, please share. Or if you think we should free Friendy and let nature be – or squash him and all other pesky tent caterpillars we find, feel free to weigh in. There seem to be plenty of folks out their on both sides of the debate. (In defense of Friendy, though, I should say that while he and his friends may build unsightly white web-tents in trees and then munch on lots of leaves, they almost never kill the host trees. They just eat them up a bit. All of this according to the government.)