Caterpillars and population

For the past 3 weeks caterpillars have carpeted the outdoors, and when they can they sneak inside. Most of them are about 2 inches long, orange and black segmentally striped and covered with fuzzy tan fur. They move remarkably fast.

covered with caterpillars

It has changed the world we live in to have wiggly, crawly things where ever we step. It is  surreal–almost apocalyptic.  They are everywhere: all around the door, all over the walk, all over the road, chomping on my roses and my pear tree. They are western tent caterpillars and they like alders. Our house is surrounded by alder woods. A couple of years ago they were mostly on the north end of the island, and while Polly and Karl lay dying the caterpillars devastated their orchard. This year they have defoliated all the tall alders around our house, far back into the woods. My flowers are getting a lot more sun than usual.

This is how our trees look now, full of tents, leaves eaten away

I had renters in my guest apartment over the Memorial Day weekend — a single father and his two boys. I apologized for the caterpillars. Don’t worry, he said politely, the boys think they’re cute. Children seem to like them. My neighbor was out with his grandson biking past the yard as I was picking caterpillars off the vegetables I grow along the fence in half barrels. I said, Hi Sylvan, to the 4 year old. We have a pet caterpillar, he said. I laughed. We have an army of millions of them.

My vegetable garden

Every morning just after breakfast I go out with the broom and sweep up bags of them from around the door and the patio. We can’t use the patio anyhow, because a few minutes after I sweep there are caterpillars traveling purposefully in all directions. They drop on us as we sip our cocktails. So we stay inside. Jerry and I check each other for caterpillars when we have been outside. I spend hours every day picking them off the plants I grow. Now they are beginning to pupate, curling up the leaves and sticking them together with white cottony threads.

The house is covered with cocoons

I think about the ancient silk trade while I work picking them off in places I can get at them. I wonder why only silk worms make a fiber that is useful to humans. Why can’t we use the sticky white threads of the western tent caterpillar?

At first I couldn’t bring myself to touch the crawling caterpillars, but I got used to it and now I scoop them off the flower pots, walls and path by the handfuls, trying not to notice their soft, furry wriggling. I don’t want to squish them because yucky brown stuff gets on my hands if they are damaged. Rachel, the tall, beautiful young woman who pulls weeds for me sometimes (what a worker she is!) says, They make you resent them because you can’t help hurting them. But I have become angry with them. I want to kill them all.

The multitude of caterpillars is a striking example of the profligacy of life. There are live caterpillars crawling over squashed ones all over the road. My neighbors say they don’t walk on Granger Way these days because it’s so unpleasant to step on the crawling things. Millions are produced; so it doesn’t matter that only hundreds ever make it to reproduce. The biological strategy of the species is: blanket the world–some are sure to survive.

Apparently caterpillar numbers cycle and this is the worst they have been in 20 years. I have lived here that long and have never seen anything like this. Supposedly they don’t kill mature plants and trees, even though there are few leaves left on the trees in the woods. The eggs are laid in glistening packets around twigs of the trees. They hatch in the spring and the larvae (caterpillars) form tents packed with dense masses of them. At first they stay in the tents in the daytime and feed at night, coming back to their tents at dawn. They undergo 3 molts, each time getting bigger and after the last molt they leave the tent and set out on their life’s journey.

Birds are everywhere, but these caterpillars must really taste bad because no bird seems to feed on them. There is a kind of wasp that lays its eggs on them, and those unlucky caterpillars will never become the ugly brown moths which are the adult stage. If the wasps have laid their eggs on a caterpillar there is a distinct white spot on its head. When the moths emerge from their cocoons they have no mouth parts, and so they can’t feed. They mate, lay eggs for next years caterpillar infestation and then they die.

Every day now there are fewer crawling ones and more making cocoons all over the house and my plants. Jerry has bought a new pressure washer to clean them off the house, but it’s a monumental task. They are so sticky that he worries about getting water under the siding if he blasts them hard enough to loosen them.

Besides the multitude of caterpillars there is a sudden increase in the population of band tailed pigeons. They were not here, at least not such numbers, until this year. They coo mournfully and monotonously all day. The sound annoys a lot of islanders, some of whom want to shoot them. It has been suggested that they could become part of the trendy foraged food menu at the Willows. I just wish the pigeons would eat the caterpillars, but pigeons only seem to fancy black sunflower seed in island bird feeders.

Doves at the feeder

Is there a lesson to be learned from these population fluctuations? According to the journal Science the human population growth rate peaked in the early 1960’s, but it is still growing and will probably plateau at 9 billion in the middle of this century. The article goes on to discuss ways to feed this enormous number of people. The magazine The Economist, on the other hand, discussed “shrinking populations” and what governments are trying to do to get people to have more children. The Japanese in particular are not taking sufficient interest in procreation and the population is shrinking. Korea and China also have low fertility rates.

Are we going to have human population peaks and crashes like the caterpillars? What would the world be like if suddenly some lethal virus swept around the world and halved the population as the black death did in the 14th century?

Well, as Jerry and I say to each other when various disasters are predicted for the future, We won’t be around to see it.

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8 Responses to Caterpillars and population

  1. Rain Trueax says:

    Wow, that’s amazing. I hope we don’t end up with them down here like that :(. It’s been much drier than usual here and it does make me wonder what it all will be like. I am not sure if we will see it or not as it seems to be moving a lot faster than they originally seemed to think

  2. Brighid says:

    We had a plague of grasshoppers one year, they ate everything. I put bait (from the ag extension office) out for them around my garden and that only slightly slowed them down. There just weren’t enough predators to keep them in balance. It was a tough year as most of the cattle feed was destroyed long before it was time to ship to summer pastures in the mountains.

  3. I have seen grass hopper plagues, mouse plagues and Bogong Moth plagues – but never caterpillar over-runs. And, I suspect, we could be considered a lot like them. We breed prolifically, and destroy (or at least damage) a lot of our environment.
    I do find myself wondering about a modern equivalent of the black death. Which is probably wasted energy.
    Thank you – another interesting post which has sent me away thinking.

  4. Friko says:

    What do you do with the buckets of caterpillars you brush or scoop up?
    There are people here who collect slugs and snails from the garden, take them away to a field somewhere and find that the creatures eventually return.

    I would hate to have to cope with armies of caterpillars. I’d probably spray an infestation like yours.

    As for people, there are too many on the planet. We can hardly feed them now, and it would be better if the breeding rate went down a bit rather than increased, as it is set to do. Resources are finite and I hate to think of the fighting for them that will surely mark the next 2 to 300 years.

  5. Hattie says:

    Yuck! What a nightmare! It’s too bad about the alders. They look awful.
    In Hawaii, just about everything is invasive, and species reach a kind of balance of terror, so to speak. The other night I killed a flying termite swarm with my mosquito zapper light. They are disgusting, and we always have some of them eating at our house. We have several species of ants, including the fire ants that came over here on ornamental plants. Their bite is terrible, itches like fury and takes days to heal. African snails eat fallen fruit and carry rat-lungworm disease, a terrible affliction. My husband caught 20 of them the other night, and I’m sure there are a lot more. Worst of all are the Puerto Rican coqui frogs that shriek all night. They are good little bug eaters, but their noisy mating habits make them highly unwelcome. The bufos, originally from Florida but brought to us via Australia, are not so noisy, but they carry four different toxins and kill a lot of small animals and can threaten little children, too.
    Anyway, here it’s almost impossible to grow garden vegetables except hydroponically because of the many many pests. We have learned to live with all this, but we have to be on our guard all the time.
    So along with the good stuff humans have brought, there are these other creatures. We, of course, are the most invasive of the invasive species.

  6. Tabor says:

    Are these those invasive gypsy moths? They spray for them here on the EAst Coast. I saw certain sides of mountains destroyed this weekend. It is a tragedy and they are abundant because they are non-native and have no enemies!

  7. pauline says:

    I remember an invasive tent caterpillar infestation when I was a child. It was much as you describe with tents and caterpillars and denuded trees everywhere. We always get a few each summer but nothing like what you describe in some years now. I hope we’re not coming up on another cycle…

    As Elephant’s Child says, you’ve set me to thinking about such things as uses for caterpillar threads and what life will belike for my grandchildren.

  8. wisewebwoman says:

    I remember such an infestation when living in Toronto and the trees were denuded and underfoot was gag-making.

    Right now I have flying ants in my house and they are driving me crazy as they dive bomb. I’ve put down bait, etc. but they are succeeding in terrorizing me too.

    Good luck and let’s hope their season is over soon 🙁


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