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San Diego Monarch Musings - Is Lepidopterophilia Creeping up on Me?

Updated on October 19, 2015
Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar on Mel's back patio.
Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar on Mel's back patio. | Source

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.

From lowly belly crawler to beautiful aviator.
From lowly belly crawler to beautiful aviator. | Source

A Confession

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!

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar on San Diego Backyard Grass
Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar on San Diego Backyard Grass | Source

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.


Tropical Milkweed - Common in So Cal Butterfly Gardens
Tropical Milkweed - Common in So Cal Butterfly Gardens | Source

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.

A Graphic depiction of the Monarch life cycle, similar to the one I observed in Mrs. Champion's classroom.
A Graphic depiction of the Monarch life cycle, similar to the one I observed in Mrs. Champion's classroom. | Source

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.

Arthur the Smug, Overly Protected, Poop Factory Tobacco Hornworm Larva
Arthur the Smug, Overly Protected, Poop Factory Tobacco Hornworm Larva | Source

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.

Tobacco Hornworm Moth - Male
Tobacco Hornworm Moth - Male | Source

Will you suffer a bug to live?

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The Miracle of Monarch Migration

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    • Oztinato profile image

      Oztinato 20 months ago from Australia

      Yes I will embrace the bugs. Omm.

      The great caterpillar pic got me involved with your hub.

      Had a laugh about your "ophile" jokes: we had a podiatrist attacked here once when some well meaning lunatic saw his shingle up!

      Shades of Lewis Carroll and pot smoking caterpillars.

      Insects and me go way back too: cicadas in particular.

      Can you include a bigger pic of "milkweed "? I want to know if its the same as ours here the land of oz. Tropical milkweed?

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 20 months ago from Queensland Australia

      Very well written and attractive hub Mel. Your humorous vein that flows through also makes it easy and enjoyable to read. Before I moved to the country and became a gardener I didn't really appreciate bugs. Certain ones like grasshoppers are not my favorites because they tend to destroy the vegetables without giving anything back, but most caterpillars I can cope with and sacrifice some leaves because the resulting butterflies help in the pollination of new plants.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 20 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Whahooo! My fine friend in the path of our miraculous Monarchs. You and I are so blessed to live under the flight path and in the breeding ground of such wonder. You have not any milkweed, you ne'er-do-well? Hmph. Gov Brown and his H2O cutbacks will put a further nail in the coffin of fine non-feathered friends. Mrs. Champion must have been a goddess. And now I know the land of Truth or Consequences also is blessed by the royalty of Papilios.

      A splendid write my friend worthy to send me smiling into my day. Muchas Gracias

    • Reynold Jay profile image

      Reynold Jay 20 months ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      MS. Champion did well and I would imagine she would be proud of you. After all these years you have become her legacy. I would say what you do for yourself is buried with you. What you do for others lives forever. These articles may well be your legacy. Thank you. I have a new appreciation for the Monarchs.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 20 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I love me Monarchs! When I was teaching a few years back we made a butterfly garden and actually raised Monarchs in the classroom and then released them in the garden. Their migration to Mexico is one of the most amazing things in nature.....anyway, I love this article.

    • justthemessenger profile image

      James C Moore 20 months ago from The Great Midwest

      It must be nice to be in the path of the Monarch migration. I embrace the bug based upon what bugs we're talking about. I make it a point not to disturb spider webs. I've gone around them even while watering a garden. House flys got to stay out of my house.

    • Vagabond Laborer profile image

      Vagabond Laborer 20 months ago

      Great hub, Mel--(clever name by the way). You're a very good writer. A book you may be interested in if you haven't read it is "Nabokov's Butterflies." Vladimir Nabokov's son, Dmitri wrote it about his father's love of butterflies--apparently Nabokov discovered a couple of new species.

    • profile image

      Pat Mills 20 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      I'd embrace them more if I saw them more often. They used to be a summer fixture by me, but now I'm lucky if I see them once a year. I'm glad somebody gets the experience I don't.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 20 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Bonita dude I just dropped by to congratulate you on your outstanding reaction here. Cheers!!!!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 20 months ago from San Diego California

      Yes Oztinato, I have found caterpillars do love leaves, either munched or smoked. This was actually one of the few good pictures I have been able to take with my bad phone. Thanks for reading!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 20 months ago from San Diego California

      Thanks for embracing the bug down under Jodah. You have some stunning birds, I'll bet you have some impressive butterflies too.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 20 months ago from San Diego California

      Eric, Mrs. Champion was one of those people you never realize how wonderful they are until it is too late to go back and tell them. Life is full of times we kick ourselves in the butt wishing we would have thanked great people. Hmmm...could be a sermon there. Mrs. Champion's name says everything. Thanks for reading!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 20 months ago from San Diego California

      Reynold Jay I had forgotten about Mrs. Champion until I wrote this, and now I wonder if she is still alive. I remember she had a sweet, sincere smile. Thanks for reading!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 20 months ago from San Diego California

      Bill, teachers certainly can make a lasting impression on people with real world teaching moments like this. As an unrelated postscript, today I saw two monarch catterpillars on that lady's milkweed plant. The stuff really works. Thanks for reading!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 20 months ago from San Diego California

      Justthemessenger, people mostly just squash spiders without realizing the great service they do. Spiders don't bother me when I'm eating lunch but flies certainly do. Thanks for reading!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 20 months ago from San Diego California

      Vagabond, are you talking about the Nabokov of Lolita fame? That's an interesting fact. Glad you caught on to my moniker. You are fast, some people it takes years, or never. Thanks for reading!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 20 months ago from San Diego California

      Mills, sorry about your disheartening dearth of lepidopterids. Sounds like you need a butterfly garden or two in your neighborhood. If you build it they will come. Thanks for reading!

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 20 months ago from Oklahoma

      I love the various creepy crawlies of the world. When such a creature finds its way inside my home, I always carefully relocate it back to my yard.

      Very educational and entertaining. You have such a way with your words that even what might at first seem everyday becomes engrossing.

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 20 months ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      Interesting and informative article. I love butterflies, especially for their beauty.

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 20 months ago from Victoria, Australia

      An interesting article and great photos. Love it!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 20 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Larry. I decided some time ago to just write what pops into my head and the SEO gods be damned. I could just paraphrase a Wikipedia article, I suppose, but that would be tedious. I think you and I both like to try to be mavericks, even though it doesn't translate to google clicks. I appreciate you dropping in!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 20 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Nadine May. I would love to know what kind of butterflies frequent your area.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 20 months ago from San Diego California

      I am exceptionally gratified you enjoyed it Blossom. Thanks for dropping by!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 20 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a lovely hub, Mel. Your interest in insects is very obvious, and so is your wife's! I enjoyed reading the article very much.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 20 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Linda. My wife has learned to love every living thing that sets foot, or multiple feet in her garden except ants. She has declared war on ants. But that's okay, they are the little Argentine ants and they are an invasive species, so it's open season. I appreciate you dropping in!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 20 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      One warm day I came across a caterpillar I was amazed by its color a very interesting hub.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 20 months ago from San Diego California

      There are all kinds of websites now Devika where you can go and look up a caterpillar to find what kind of butterfly it turns into. For a gardener like you this might be important, because it might give information on whether this particular grub is harmful to your plants, or beneficial. Sometimes the ugliest caterpillars turn into the most beautiful butterflies. Thanks for reading - I'll bet Croatia has some interesting butterflies.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 20 months ago from SW England

      This is great, and what a spectacular butterfly! I've heard of the Monarch but I've no idea if we have them here. Will find out in a mo!

      We have the bottom corner (point, actually) of our garden dedicated to butterflies etc as it's a calm, sheltered area and away from all the other plants and flowers. It's full of mint, holly, poppies and a few stray flowers which have self-seeded there. So I'm doing my bit already. Buddleias are great plants for butterflies as are lilacs; think they might be the same family?

      I'm also an Ornitholophile. I love going to the Hawk Conservancy and around us we have many buzzards flying around the Somerset Levels.

      Ann

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 20 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks for helping out the monarch, Mel. They are excellent pollinators.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 20 months ago from San Diego California

      That's an interesting difference between the Queen's English and our new world guttural, Ann. What you call a buzzard we call a hawk, and we use the word buzzard to refer to vultures or our mothers in law. It's a rather disparaging term when used correctly, like "look at that dried up old buzzard!" I'm just kidding of course, I love my mother in law, but you should write a hub on the differences between Yankee and modern Elizabethan English.

      I am delighted you are doing your part to help the butterflies. Thanks for reading!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 20 months ago from San Diego California

      Deb, I think lots of Monarchs mean that nature is being left alone enough to do its job. Toxic milkweed is not nearly as toxic for our ecosystems as the poisons used to destroy it in the corn rows of the Midwest. Thanks for reading!

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 20 months ago from SW England

      A buzzard is indeed a type of hawk, as are many birds of prey. I have heard of that term for 'old women' but not necessarily for mothers-in-law!

      I wouldn't know where to start with the differences between our two variations of English. What you call 'modern' Elizabethan is made up of so much old stuff, but your'e right that the differences in meanings of some words would be interesting to research. I already have a list of 'to do' hubs but will add that one, thanks!

      Ann

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 20 months ago from San Diego California

      Probably a study of our two different types of English would require encyclopedias full of hubs, Ann. Unfortunately, there are not enough hours in the day to get around to everything. I enjoy your hubs on words immensely, keep doing what you are doing.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 20 months ago from SW England

      Thanks, Mel; much appreciated.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 19 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Mel

      I've even been known to let the humble cockroach live (much to my wife's dismay!)

      Insects are our friends in many ways.

      Great hub

      Lawrence

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 19 months ago from San Diego California

      I draw the line on cockroaches, Lawrence, but I appreciate your live and let live attitude. Thanks for dropping in.

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