Monday, June 12, 2006

Two Caterpillars

I came across this caterpillar on some kind of native plum infected with black knot that is ubiquitous in the yard. (Another Black knot link) We prune the infected branches and sometimes cut the little trees down altogether, but both the infection and the tree itself hold onto life tenaciously! To get rid of the trees we'd have to dig them out by the roots (not easy!). To get rid of the black knot? Maybe put a dome over the yard and sterilize everything underneath it. Black knot is a fungal infection that emits spores much as apple-cedar rust does, in the damp days of spring, that travel through the air looking for suitable hosts. These trees are its favourite, but it turns up on other fruit trees as well.

This critter seems to be eating black knot.

The caterpillar is about 5 cm long, slim and slightly hairy--distinctive enough that I figured I could find out what it was. (Still amazed that any of these creatures can be identified, but I've been on a roll lately.) Turns out, to my great surprise, this is an Eastern Tent Caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum). Out of its tent, and out of the squirmy mass of small caterpillars that I know so well, this is quite a handsome beast. There was talk of a bad year for these caterpillars (that can devastate fruit trees) this year, but in this area they were quite modest. A tent here and there, no trees stripped. The tents are all empty now, but I didn't know that the caterpillars travelled on, growing and eating on their own before cocooning. From what I can glean from various sources, we know this creature by its caterpillar name, it turns into a tent caterpillar moth, one of the Lasiocampids.

Eastern Tent Caterpillar--grows up surprisingly pretty.

The day after I took these pictures I went back to look for the caterpillar, and it was still on the black knot--lending weight to my earlier impression that it was eating it. There was evidence on the bit of knot of nibbling, but not very compelling--the surface is rough and broken looking anyway. Strange....but not particularly a benefit to the tree--once the black knot turns black it's done its work, so eating it won't reduce the infection.

Last weekend I noticed another tenter in the yard--more casual, draping webbing over and around the ends of branches, exclusively infesting Wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus), of which there are three, about 50 metres apart. This is a native species of euonymus that produces a very pretty fruit in the fall, pink capsules around scarlet seeds. Turns out that it's not a native caterpillar.

The euonymus caterpillar is a European that feeds on the European euonymus, came with that species, and has recently branched out to native euonymus in North America, much like the case of the European sawfly. So clever, so adaptable. The mature form is an ermine moth, called the European spindle ermine moth, after another, closely related species of tree, the spindle tree, it likes to eat. The moth is medium-sized, and white with black spots on its wings.

Euonymus Caterpillar (Yponomeuta cagnagella)

1 comment:

John said...

This has seemed to be a pretty normal tent caterpillar year to me - not too many, not too few. I have noticed birds plucking away at the tents, so they do serve a purpose.