San Diego Monarch Musings - Is Lepidopterophilia Creeping up on Me?
From the Sinister Sounding -Phile Files
Words that end in the suffix -phile often result in frantic calls to the local police department by misinformed folks who think that anything ending with a fancy Greek sounding phrase means there are perverts creeping about the neighborhood. But no, no pervies here, only monarch butterfly caterpillars and other strange looking grubs wriggling around on multiple legs; admittedly homely creatures, but bugs that have turned my wife and I into avid Lepidopterophiles. No need to call law enforcement, and please don't reach for those faded, soggy, worn out yellow pages to contact the pest control company either. Instead, the time has come to welcome the loathed and and unloved bug into your backyard. Embrace the lowly belly crawling caterpillar munching away in your flower bed as a harbinger and propagator of beauty, and next spring your blooms will be pollinating and thriving as beautiful butterflies and moths morph from these sometimes frightening worms.
I confess to being one of these sinister sounding -philes for quite a while. Although my name might not be included in any nationwide neighborhood-watch database, I have been an unapologetic Ornitholophile since about 1999, when I first saw a Black-shouldered Kite coursing and hovering over a vacant lot, hunting for voles in the grass below. That experience set off my passion for bird watching, which I have continued to pursue with varying degrees of intensity over the ensuing years.
Lepidopterophilia, however, has been a recent development. I have long enjoyed observing butterflies and moths as sort of a sideline, quite frankly because they require very little effort to see, and I even own a field guide or two on the subject. But it has only been the arrival of beguiling bugs in my backyard that has sparked my crusade to protect and proliferate the delicate butterflies and moths that add color and life to our gardens, pollinate our flowers and fruits, and in general enhance our often lackluster suburban lives; too often dominated by monotonous scenes of asphalt and automobiles.
Embrace the Bug!
A Monarchal Visitation
Here's how it started. A few Sundays ago I was gardening with my wife in the backyard, because there is nothing that makes her half as happy as seeing me sweat with a shovel in my hand. As I strained to unearth some unwanted plant that the Queen of the Garden (my wife) decreed had outlived its royal sanction, she suddenly called me over to identify some strange creepy crawly that had slithered its way onto the patio. Although at most times my wife treats me with the long suffering affection one reserves for a slow child, when it suits her fancy I better know everything, or else.
"What is that?" she exclaimed, pointing down at the patio. I have to hand it to the lady; although at one point she may have been terrified by lizards and bugs, gardening has turned her into their friend and protector, meaning no living backyard entity is especially repugnant to her anymore. Instead, they have achieved their own sort of terrible, proprietary beauty in her eyes and she even gives them names.
I told her I thought it was a Monarch Butterfly caterpillar, but that I wasn't sure, because it seemed out of place. First and foremost we don't have any milkweed in our yard, which monarch caterpillars eat almost exclusively. Therefore, because I was uncertain about the identity of the caterpillar, I posted a photo on a Facebook bird page, where I knew there is always a Lepidopterophile or two lurking around, lying in wait. Sure enough, I was not disappointed. Within minutes I got back a half dozen responses insuring me that my caterpillar indeed was a Monarch larva, and that although I might not have any milkweed growing on the property somebody close by assuredly has some.
Further Monarchal Musings
This monarchal visitation caused me to think back on my previous experiences with the Monarch Butterfly, which seem to be culminating in a newfound desire to do my humble part to help protect this threatened species. This sensationally clad member of the order Lepidoptera captivates mankind with its beauty, and also with its spectacular migration of up to almost 5000 miles, from deep into Canada to the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico.
In the second grade my teacher Mrs. Champion, at Mission Elementary in Albuquerque, New Mexico, set up a terrarium which she filled with milkweed leaves and a small, appropriately formed cutting from a tree branch, which she propped up on one side of the enclosure. The classroom terrarium was to be home for a Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar she had obtained. Over the course of several weeks we second graders looked on in awe as the caterpillar fed and morphed, eventually transforming into a bright green chrysalis which hung from the tree cutting. To our amazement, the chrysalis one day turned dark purple and in short order a beautiful Monarch Butterfly emerged and dried its wings, after which Mrs. Champion released it into the wild. Although I have forgotten many of the pertinent details, this experience left an indelible imprint on my mind, and soul, which remains 45 years later.
The species Danaus plexippus continues to remain relevant in my life. Shortly after the recent appearance of the monarch caterpillar in my backyard, I observed a Monarch Butterfly visiting the bright orange and yellow flowers of a tropical milkweed planted by another Lepidopterophile in the small butterfly garden of a business I deliver mail to. I mentioned my butterfly sighting to the lady who cultivated and takes care of the plants, assuring her that the milkweed was working; it was really attracting butterflies! She appeared to be well aware of this already, and went on to tell me that when the caterpillars emerged they would completely denude the milkweed plant of leaves. It didn't matter, she said, the plant would grow back later with a vengeance, to beautify the garden once again and continue contributing to the life cycle of multiplying Monarchs. Encouraged by her story, I have since resolved to plant some milkweed as well, to see if I can coax a passing Monarch or two into my own yard.
Know Your Butterflies!
More Creepy Crawlies Join the Garden Party
Meanwhile, my backyard keeps offering up more surprises. For some time now, my wife and I have been observing strange droppings on our back patio. We assumed these to be rodent leavings, and have even done distasteful Google searches of animal poop to see if anything matches. None of the repugnant images of mammalian fecal matter quite fit the description, however. All the same, my wife laid out some mouse and rat pellets, but to no avail. The strange droppings continued to accumulate at the base of a planter in which she has a small flowering shrub, sometimes appearing mere minutes after she has come back inside from sweeping them up.
Then, on Friday, the 16th of October, my wife texted that she had discovered the producer of the unidentified droppings. A large green caterpillar she found in the planter was eating, digesting, and defecating away the leaves of this shrub almost as quickly as it could force them down its relentless, ravenous craw.
When I got home I set about trying to identify this voracious monster, and came to the conclusion that it was probably the larva of a Tomato Hornworm or other type of Hawk Moth in the Sphingidae family. Further investigation led me to change to the opinion that it must be the closely related Tobacco Hornworm, which has seven lateral, V-shaped lines instead of the eight found on the Tomato Hornworm. These diverse adult members of the Hawk Moth family, including the Manduca Sexta, Tobacco Hornworm, superficially resemble hummingbirds as they go about their late evening business of collecting nectar from flowers. Also interesting is the bizarre fact that the Hornworm Moth's larvae have the amazing capacity to scare off predators with foul nicotine breath, created by the tobacco plants they munch and poop out incessantly. I've held back from kissing many a date because of cigarette-induced halitosis, but with the Tobacco Hornworm odiferous exhalations actually have a survival function!
We don't have any tobacco, or tomatoes in our backyard, including the mystery plant this grub is feeding on, but my neighbors have tomatoes, which the Tobacco Hornworm larvae also will eat in a pinch. Therefore, perhaps it crawled into our yard from next door and found that the unidentified shrub it has taken refuge in seems to satisfy its discerning palate. Although the Tobacco Hornworm is reputed to be a destructive pest, my wife has taken a liking to it anyway. She speaks to the bug, strokes its smooth green skin gently, chases off the birds that forage for morsels in the garden, and has even christened it with the name of Arthur. Whether it be part of a pernicious plague or not, by royal decree the Queen of the Garden hath declared that Arthur is to be given sanctuary, and woe to those that disturb his ferocious munching.
Conclusion - Will You Embrace the Bug?
Whether the bugs in your garden are the larvae of magnificently beautiful Monarch Butterflies, or the overprotected poop factory spawn of Tobacco Hornworm moths, I think the point I am trying to make is that even a suburban backyard can be a world of marvels. Furthermore, there are things we can do as homeowners to help protect and proliferate this natural oasis in a desert of dead concrete, so that our children can enjoy the same wonders that enrich our senses on a daily basis.
Although I don't think I am going to raise a tobacco crop anytime soon to make the greedy, diarrhea inflicted descendants of Arthur the smug wonder grub happy, I do plan to plant some milkweed to attract more desirable visitors into the garden. Milkweed is being decimated by pesticide use in the corn crops of the American Midwest, and the Monarch Butterfly population has plummeted in disturbing fashion. Does human survival depend upon the health of this insect? Perhaps not, but maybe human happiness does. We can reduce our surroundings to ugly, featureless, barren strip mall status, or we can incorporate ourselves seamlessly into the natural environment, and in so doing protect species that appeal to the aesthetics of the human soul.