Do you know when summer truly begins? It’s not when the pool opens, it’s not when school lets out, it’s not when you first set foot on the beach again, and it’s certainly not the summer solstice. It’s not even the first time you spot a firefly.
It’s when the tent caterpillars arrive.
Tent caterpillars typically hatch in early spring, but I always saw them the most at the beginning of summer when they ventured out in search of cocoon-building sites. These larvae are gray-blue with gold and white stripes, a unique eye-dot pattern, and fantastic, blond clown hair that outshines the blue of their bodies. They’re also quite soft, like little ferret-worms. Many a tent caterpillar has found itself a jar-neighbor to some fireflies on my desk over the years, but I’ve never kept any to the cocoon stage. I would always release them after a few hours or so; it’s not as much fun to keep a bug overnight if it doesn’t glow to remind you of its presence. I did keep a couple wooly worms as pets for about a month, but that’s a story for another blog.
Known as tent moths when fully grown, tent caterpillars get their name from the intricate nests in which they are born and mature. The nest somewhat resembles a very thickly woven spider web in the shape of, surprise-surprise, a tent. I’ve often spotted these “tents” pitched in tree branches while driving down the road or meandering around campsites.
These fuzzy larvae are typically thought of as pests due to their affection for fruit trees. They eat the trees’ leaves rather than their fruit, but it’s still a pain for apple and cherry orchardists. However, the trees typically make a full recovery, so I think the term “pest” is a bit extreme. I rather tend to think of tent caterpillars as the harbingers of freedom, with them appearing at the end of the schoolyear and all. Sadly, not everyone shares my love for these juvenile insects, and I’m not just talking about the gardeners and orchardists.
When I was in early elementary school, a neighborhood friend and I stumbled across her older sister and the sister’s friend crouched over a tent caterpillar while we were playing in her yard. As it turned out, the sister and her friend were entertaining themselves by slowly squishing the still-living larva. They thought it was funny to watch green goop burst out of its sides when they pressed down on it, but I found the ordeal a bit sickening and later heartbreaking. At the time I was repulsed simply by the sight of bug innards, but now I wonder what pain the little guy must have endured during his torment. I still think about that day whenever I find an unwanted bug in my house. For the most part I try to carry creatures outside in a cup rather than squish them, in case my squishing isn’t thorough enough and I wind up ending an animal painfully rather than quickly. I still struggle to put this into practice with cockroaches, but I’m getting there.
One of the best parts about tent caterpillars is that if you find one, you’re sure to find another. Rarely have I ever picked up one of these little dudes without immediately spotting two or three more nearby. In elementary school, my classmates and I would sometimes find a tree or two crawling with hordes of tent caterpillars during recess or after school. The reason these caterpillars are so often found in groups is because they all live together in their communal tent until it’s time to leave home and form cocoons. The caterpillars store their food in the tent as well and will sleep together in it, even cuddling to keep warm when the temperature drops. Fluffy little ferret-worms snuggling together on a chilly night and dreaming ferret-worm dreams – I dare you to name something cuter than that. I dare you.
These caterpillars tend to venture out from their tents altogether in a big group, which explains why my friends and I would always find oodles of caterpillars shimmying up and down those trees at once. They only leave the safety of their nest three times a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Did you catch that? They eat their meals together! They have meals! I don’t think we give insects enough credit for their adorably intricate lifestyles.
While I would find tent caterpillars everywhere during my childhood, I haven’t spotted as many of the little larvae in recent years. Some summers I don’t see them at all, which I think is more an issue of me not paying attention than the caterpillars disappearing. I guess life got so busy in high school that I started forgetting to pause and pet the arthropods.
Heed my warning, adults: pay attention to your kids. When they spot the cool bugs before you do, it’s a sign that your childhood is slipping away. Don’t forget to set aside some time for accumulating grass stains, jumping through sprinklers, and counting stars – and most importantly, don’t forget to play with the caterpillars.