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Hickory Horned Devil: Shedding Into Beauty

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

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 When we left the Hickory Horned Devil, it was preparing to molt, hanging limp, then pulsing and extending its front half. I was in a tizzy because I had to take Curtis to the vet to get his staples out after surgery, and I couldn't be there for its last molt as a caterpillar. Dang it! Priorities. I did, however, get to come home that afternoon to a changed beast.


No, not Curtis. The worm. Well, Curtis was happy without the staples in his neck and brisket. 


Aug 24 4:43pm LOOK WHAT IT DID


Morning August 26. Hoooo Weeee!!

I was SO excited to see the transformation. All my worry about the anorexia and dull coloration dissipates as I see what the caterpillar was working up to. It didn't eat for 2 1/2 days while it was preparing to molt, and that coincided with my taking it inside, so of course I concluded that I'd done something dumb and ruined everything. That's how it goes, every time, for the first-time helicopter HHD mom. 
I'm an HHHD mom.



26 August 2022. In this video I'm showing you how the "devil eyes" work. The caterpillar really only displays them under duress, when it's frightened and thinks it needs to scare someone back. They're just square black spots on the caterpillar's nape, or thorax I guess. And the worm can sort of flex to display them when necessary, by tucking its head down against its underside. That move expands the nape, reveals the Ray Bans, and also deploys the scary horns, which don't
hurt at all, and have no poison in them. All for show. 


Here's the new sleeve I deployed on 26 August. I ordered it from raisingbutterflies.org
It's the biggest one they make, a habitat fit for the King of Caterpillars, the Regal Moth's larva.


It's so big that I never had to move the caterpillar for its whole time inside. With smaller sleeves, you have to move them to a fresh branch when the worm eats all the leaves inside. You want to shake the branch you're about to enclose quite hard before you sleeve it, to make sure you've got all the stinkbugs and spiders off it. Then you run the sleeve over the branch and tie it very tightly and securely at both ends. You can't tie it too tightly, or run the cord around the closure too many times. Things get in. Things get out, otherwise.
The beauty of the sleeve is that the caterpillar is outdoors, exposed to sun, rain, wind and changing temperatures, just as it would be in nature. For monarchs, at least, this is VITAL to their picking up navigational skills. Shockingly, monarchs raised inside a house don't know how to get to Mexico, apparently. What a thought--that in trying to help them we could be hampering them, keeping them from fulfilling their destiny. So you've got to raise them outdoors, and sleeves are the way to go. 
The only difference in sleeve raising and wild life, for the caterpillar, is that nothing can kill it.


I loved all the stages of the HHD, but I have to say I found this newly shed fifth instar caterpillar the most beautiful of all. I loved its proportions--still with ridiculously long horns and prolegs; gorgeous shades of beige and brown, set off by all that orange red bling. 


Aug 25 7 pm New 5th Instar Molt coloration--maybe my favorite! He finally started eating again that evening. Whew!! Had not eaten since I took him in on the 23rd! I was worried. But it was just him getting ready to molt. I have to say the worry was worth it.

26 August 11 AM, I got a good shot of the gripperdoodle off the back of the worm. It's basically constructed like an oven mitt with Velcro tips. It clamps onto the branch like a vise, and that worm is NOT going to fall while the gripperdoodle is engaged. Yes that is a Zick neologism and yes you may use it. As I age and am unable to come up with the words I want, I spontaneously invent them. Often they're better than the word I was searching for; just ask my kids.  Kind of a natural history Casey Stengel at this stage of my life.


The correct term for the gripperdoodle would be  "modified anal prolegs" but what fun is that? And also gross. Come to think of it I wish I'd figured out where the frass comes out. Inside/behind the gripperdoodle? Does it have to release the oven mitt to take a sh-t? Darn! Wish I'd poked around to better understand this remarkable naughty bit.


By 26 August, 7:20 pm, the caterpillar was turning pale before my eyes, especially along the dorsum. 

26 aug 720 pm

In the sunlight, I could see some green creeping into the bronzy brown it had before.

There's a Curtis bomb in this photo. Not an accident. He tries to get in the frame just like Chet did.


And wait--is that turquoise coming into the foreparts?? Is this thing changing color before my eyes, like an octopus? Why not? In the Devil World, anything is possible. 

You're just too good to be true
Can't take my eyes off of you
You'd be like heaven to touch
I want to hold you so much
Well, that last part, not so much.

Hickory Horned Devil 2: Avoiding Predators and Parasites

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

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Years ago, I saw a small tree coming up in the meadow, not far from the yard. Huh. Wonder what it is? Well, it was a persimmon, and that being one of my very favorite trees, I decreed that it should not be mowed.  It grew quickly, quickly enough that an orchard oriole pair tried nesting in it in the summer of 2021, how wonderful! 
And now, it would find a new use.




The persimmon branches I cut and put in a vase for my now captive hickory horned devil did something unexpected, wilting dramatically overnight. Some plants just do that, especially woody plants. Oh no! I couldn't feed my Precious dry, dying/dead leaves. What to do? Well, I got online in the wee hours and searched and searched for sleeves to put on live trees, before I realized I had an answer right in front of me. I'd just take the mesh clothes basket and zip it right onto the living tree! Brilliant! or so I thought at the time. It's never as brilliant as it seems.

Walmart to the rescue! I'd been meaning to buy one of these groovy clothes baskets (as opposed to hampers) for awhile, to house little things like insects and small birds. It would be a good hummingbird home, for instance...maybe even a good bat home, a good nestling home...I like it.

The beauty being that it has great big windows AND it zips completely closed.
I would let the persimmon tree do all the work of keeping its leaves alive and juicy, and just zip the Worm inside, on a living branch full of leaves!


I ran the branch in one window and zipped it closed with the worm inside on August 23.


Pretty slick, huh? I twist-tied it in place by its various straps. That thing wasn't going anywhere.


Just to make sure, I twist-tied the zippers closed. However.

I woke up in the wee hours the next morning, as I am wont to do, thinking...is that mesh small enough to keep braconid wasps out? I knew it would keep cuckoos out, and big old tachinid flies, which lay eggs on caterpillars, but parasitic wasps? I asked my guru for all things insect, Laura Stalder Hughes. Nope, she said. Braconids can definitely get through that mesh. ARRRGH. Back to the drawing board.

 I must diverge for a bit, to explain why I woke up thinking about braconids. Here are some images from my blog from 2010, showing a glorious tobacco hornworm Manduca sexta decimating a tomato plant.


 The adult of this impressive worm is the Carolina sphinx, shown here on large-flowered evening primrose Oenothera glazioviana, in my garden.


Those flowers are more than 4" across. The Carolina sphinx moths are so big you can hear and feel them fly in. They have a low thrum like a hummingbird. They are miracles on wings.

And this is why you should not squish or toss or otherwise torment the hornworms on your tomatoes. Find a "victim" tomato plant (everybody has one) and put them on it. Please. Let them live. They are getting rare, at least around here. I get very excited when I get one on a tomato plant, but they rarely make it to adulthood, thanks to birds and braconids.

To show you how long ago that lovely caterpillar encounter was...here are Liam, Grady and Arlo, all of whom are either graduated from or in college now, inspecting the worm. Liam's gonna love this picture...


And this is what braconid wasps do to large caterpillars.


The little braconid female lays her eggs on the caterpillar. The eggs hatch, and the tiny larvae burrow through the skin and eat the caterpillar from the inside out. They avoid eating vital organs until they are ready to pupate and exit the decimated husk of what was once a turgid, healthy caterpillar. As a final thank-you, they eat the circulatory and digestive organs. Bye, thanks for giving us your life. We'll be leaving now.


You can see the tops of the cocoons flipped off, as the adult wasp exited each one. The braconid might be called the gardener's friend, unless the gardener loves tobacco hornworms and giant sphinxes as I do.


Here's a braconid cocoon mass I found Sept. 11 '22. There may or may not be the husk of a caterpillar under all that. 


You see, these are the nightmares of a naturalist who is trying to do her best by one charismatic caterpillar. These are the things that keep us up at night.

So on the advice of Tami Gingrich, a legendary Geauga Co. Ohio naturalist,  I went online and ordered a giant mesh sleeve from raisingbutterflies.org

the biggest one they make. Its polyester mesh is too small to admit braconids. Hooray!
And I kept the caterpillar in the hamper on the live persimmon branch because I had no choice but to do that until the sleeve arrived. And I am happy to say that no braconids had gotten in to parasitize it before it came in the mail. 

Meanwhile, the little brown caterpillar was about to go through some serious changes. It was growing but it wasn't eating. It hadn't eaten a bite since I took it in on Aug. 23. Here it is on Aug. 24. Of course I was blaming myself and the wilty persimmon leaves, but something else was clearly going on.


At 11:11 AM on Aug. 24, this is how it presented:


Just hanging there, bent double, anorexic...arrgh! I was in turmoil because I had to take Curtis to the vet to get a bunch of stitches out. He'd had two tumors removed, both of them benign, thankfully. And this caterpillar was going to shed its skin, I was pretty sure.

Wouldn't you know that I'd have to be gone for the last instar skin shed of the most special caterpillar I had ever found? Oh how I wanted to see it, and make a timelapse, but Mr. Loew was more important than that!
He had been a Very Good Boy and not scratched his incision but maybe once in two weeks, and he needed to get his Frankenstein staples out, and get his good lab report, so off we went, hoping to see a brand new caterpiggle on our return.












Meet the Hickory Horned Devil

Monday, September 12, 2022

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Well, you never, ever know what you're going to get into around here. Who could have known that one person's overnight visit here on August 10, 2022, would set me on a road of discovery, thought, and effort
that is only winding up now, September 12? 
But that's inspiration, and that's life when the Muse leads. And Heather was the conduit to the Muse.
A spiky, spiny, colorful, crazy Muse.

August 10, 7 pm. Heather is taking it all in. She's coming back from Chicago,
stopping to reconnect and rest.


There's so much to see and photograph and discover!
And Indigo Hill is showing well, the skies piled with huge thunderheads. 


We walked out the orchard slowly. At the end I showed her one of my littlest persimmon trees. And she looked up into its leaves and said, "Well, what's this?"


August 10, 7:14 pm. My life changed. I didn't know it yet; I just knew I was tremendously excited 
to see my second hickory horned devil on the sanctuary. And such a small one! It was barely two inches long. I hadn't even known they'd eat persimmon leaves, but the caterpillar couldn't be wrong. Heather began Googling madly on the good LTE reception we get in the orchard, and found that hickory horned devils eat a wide array of trees**, but they grow best on persimmon!


** Ash, butternut, cherry, cotton, hickory, lilac, pecan, sumac, sweet gum, sycamore, walnut...Persimmon!




Heather had to leave the morning of August 11. We went out to enjoy the better light and get some good pictures of her find. This was taken at 9:21 am. What a handsome caterpillar!




 On the morning of August 12, I walked out to visit the caterpillar and found it hanging high in the tree.


 Then I promptly found a second one! It was much smaller and lower in the tree. I couldn't believe my good luck!


By August 12, the big one was hanging sort of limply, looking like it was ready to shed. I think it was at this point I began to worry about the caterpillars. That state of worry would not abate until September 12.


You see, I didn't know that they go through periods of anorexia and inactivity before they shed their skins, and they do this four times in their caterpillar life. Like, they don't eat for a couple of days. They just hang there, looking like they've contracted something awful. (My too-informed tortured mind at work here). 


Aug 15 8:16 am--the big one has shed, and looks new and smart with white zags along its sides!
It's eating again, too, whew.

This is my last photo of the big one, from 15August, at 8:36am.

I love the red horns and the side markings. You can also see black spots on the upper back. More on those later. 

By the next morning, the big caterpillar had disappeared. 

I could find only the little one. 







15Aug 8:36am--little one.

I kept thinking I'd see the big one again, but it never happened. There were so many yellow-billed cuckoos in the orchard at that time, I had to conclude something had grabbed and eaten the big one. And that would be right in character for a YBCU. 


16 August, 8:25 AM.  I worried more with each passing day that this one would meet the same fate, spikes and horns and all. That's nothing to a cuckoo. 



The fields were turning gold, and September was doing her best, but I kept thinking about the opportunity that would be lost if I didn't do something about this. 



Lined orbweaver in its tilted web.

Day after day went by and somehow it was still there to greet me each morning, though it seemed to spend most of its time hanging upside down doing nothing. 




By 10 am on August 19, it was eating and looked snappy--must have shed its skin in there somewhere.

The caterpillar became more precious to me with each passing day. Watching it change fascinated me. I knew I had something very special in it, and I also knew that could all be snatched away with one click of a cuckoo's bill. I wrestled with myself about whether to take it in. I wanted so badly for it to realize its life in the wild. But I also wanted to witness it, and to avoid the seemingly inevitable abrupt end to our budding relationship. 


I so enjoyed my pilgrimages out to the end of the orchard to find it each morning. I would miss that!
But by the evening of August 22 I had decided to take it in. 


I got Liam to come with me to embolden me to do this thing I had thought and fought so hard and long to do.

Aug 22, 2022, 7:04 pm. The little one is now the size of the big one when it was eaten. Something about saving it felt right now. It was just too plump and tempting a target. I had to intervene.

Liam snapped this of me as we walked back from the end of the orchard. Just a woman and her 
foster worm.

I had bought a zip-up laundry basket I could keep it in, I thought. I clipped some persimmon branches and put them in water.



But as always, Nature led me down another path--the right one. 
To be continued...






















 

Not-so-Crazy Caterpillar Lady

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

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 Year in, year out, I fight it, that urge to take in all the little caterpillars and keep them safe from harm. 



Usually, things go well for the monarchs and I see them hatch, eat, grow, thrive, pupate and flutter away in the wild. This year is different. Very different. 

For one, monarchs have been declared endangered. Not by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, no...that takes for-freakin'-ever. The change in status was announced, rather, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature a few weeks ago. Essentially they're yelling at the USFWS that somebody's got to say something about this disappearing insect. Monarchs are big and charismatic and people notice them, which makes it all the more dispiriting that we are letting them slip away before our eyes. 

Here on a micro-scale, it's a very wet year in Ohio (like almost nowhere else in the country). I don't know if that is why there are so many predatory stinkbugs, but every monarch caterpillar I've found on my yard "ranch" in the first part of the season was eventually killed by stinkbugs. It really bothers me to see a great fat fourth instar monarch that I've been watching since it was a tiny hatchling, hanging limply from the sucking beak of a stinkbug. If there's anything that bothers me, it's seeing a young thing die.

So, reluctantly, I've climbed aboard the Crazy Caterpillar Lady Train again. But I'm only bringing them inside while they're tiny, and then again when they turn into chrysalides. I'm researching and experimenting with ways to keep them outside in the sun and wind and rain, chewing away on live milkweed, with fine mesh sleeves to protect them from parasites and predators. It's been a thing. I just don't think they were meant to grow up in an air conditioned house, or jammed together in a plastic box.


Outdoors is the thing. They've got three species of Asclepius to choose from in my yard. 


My obsession with watching the caterpillars in transition has pushed me to learn some things about time lapses and video editing. I'm proud to present my latest effort: five hours of caterpillar to chrysalis transition, condensed to a very satisfying minute and a half. Made the video today, August 30, 2022. 

 I hope you enjoy it.



 

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