He looked like something out of the cartoons, a dazzling green blubbery caricature of himself. Given his lazy, lumbering gait, this little guy was in no hurry to get to his destination.
I inspected him closely, intrigued by his suction cup feet, the wrinkles in the fern-green folds of his skin, and those spiky white Billy Idol hairs. What in the world was this unworldly creature? I knew him to be a caterpillar, but what kind? Given the impressive size, maybe Luna Moth? The Actias luna, Luna moth, is part of the Saturniidae family.
After a brief photo session, I placed him in what I presumed to be a safe spot on the trunk of an oak tree hoping he would find a proper place to pupate before the Blue Jays discovered him. I had a fleeting wish the Blue Jays were colorblind. I remained at that post as his bodyguard for several minutes, but he moved so. very. slowly. I was too impatient to stay. I wished him a safe cocoon spin and departed.
I consulted with my favorite go-to Bugman, WhatsThatBug.com, Daniel Marlos, who holds an infinite wealth of information about all-things insects.
“These are Giant Silkmoth Caterpillars from the family Saturniidae and the genus Hyalophora. There are two species from the genus in Oregon.”
The Bugman then requested species verification from Bill Oehlke, a Saturniidae expert from the World’s Largest Saturniidae site:
“In southeastern Oregon they should be Hyalophora columbia gloveri. In southwestern Oregon, they should be Hyalophora euryalus. There are hybrid blend zones in some areas and it is very difficult in some cases to differentiate even between adult moths whether they are euryalus, columbia gloveri or a naturally occurring hybrid strain.”
I asked the Bugman, are they pollinators? If not, what’s their role in nature?
“Caterpillars are not considered pollinators in the traditional sense of the word, but we would not rule out that they might accidentally transfer pollen from one blossom to another while eating leaves. Adult Giant Silkmoths do not feed, so they are not considered pollinators.
We have a long-standing mission on our site to promote the interconnectivity of all forms of life on our planet. Giant Silkmoths store vast quantities of fat in their bodies to help them survive as adults, which do not eat. Adult Giant Silkmoths provide a valuable source of nutrition to many predators, including bats, birds and mammals.”
I later learned the Silkmoth caterpillar pupates, in a silken cocoon, on its host plant, in leaf litter, or in crevices and rocks and logs. Host plants include buckbrush (Ceanothus), manzanita (Arctostaphylos), gooseberry (Ribes), madrone (Arbutus menziesii), willows (Salix), alder (Alnus), and mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus betuloides). Meanwhile, I placed the little guy on an oak. No wonder he wasn’t moving, I must’ve messed up his GPS. I hope he found a nearby Manzanita.
Some caterpillars attach their cocoons to trees, which fall to the ground resembling leaf litter to unsuspecting predators. Many insects, including native bees, overwinter their larvae in sheltered spaces such as leaf debris or dead plant material like stems. These visitors in your yard will later keep destructive insects under control; others may help pollinate plants.
If you rake up and throw away all of your leaves this fall, you may be inadvertently getting rid of these beneficial insects. Besides being beautiful to watch, butterfly and moth caterpillars are a critically important food source for birds in the spring when they are feeding their babies. If you remove of all the pupae with your leaves in the fall, there will be fewer of these insects in and around your yard in spring.
Christie Mackison, co-owner and landscape designer at Shooting Star Nursery shared insights on autumn yard care that helps beneficial insects:
“I am always telling people to save the major cleanup in the garden for spring. The faded stems and decaying leaves can provide great habitat for overwintering beneficial insects. I always find ladybugs hiding in the Lamb’s Ear when I go to clean it up in the spring. Ornamental grasses provide places for beneficial insects to hide over the winter. The seed heads of perennials, grasses, and shrubs can provide food for birds and other wildlife as well over the winter. Plus the foliage and stems you leave can help protect the crown of the plant from rotting out over the winter. Usually mid-March is a good time to get out in the garden and do your major cleanup. You will be rewarded with a supply of good bugs to help you in the garden.”
So while most folks are busily cleaning up dead plants and leaves, be a pollinactivist this fall! Leave your leaf debris and keep these important insects free from harm (say that 10 times fast)! Add holes with different drill bits to dead trees for various flying pollinators and set aside a bare patch of ground for ground nesting pollinators. And of course avoid using chemicals and pesticides. The suffix -cide means “a killer of.” I’ll be talking more about various cides in the future.
Preserve natural spaces in your yard. It’s a great excuse to give yourself a respite in the name of environmental stewardship. Say Yes to the Mess! Your pollineighbors will love it.
To see more articles from my new Love Thy Pollineighbor column with the Jacksonville Review, click here!