A Caterpillar Feast

In March, I journeyed back to the Anza-Borrego Desert in southern California. The big draw was an annual migration of Swainson’s hawks and the emergence of big colorful caterpillars, but as it happened, a third phenomenon blossomed simultaneously.

Big colorful caterpillars emerge every spring in Anza-Borrego.

They are the larvae of the white-lined sphinx moth and appear in various color combinations, from yellow with black stripes, to black with yellow stripes, to green with black stripes.

The caterpillars, sometimes called hornworms, feed on many types of flowers and plants, while the moths seek nectar.

The striking moths, also known as hummingbird moths, can be quite beautiful.

What I witnessed was the part of the life cycle when the larvae hatch and proceed to munch out on the desert flowers and plants.

It just so happened that this year the little guys were even luckier to hatch during a “superbloom,” a time when bountiful winter rains have produced carpets of wildflowers across the desert.

After eating nonstop and growing to 3-4 inches in length, the time comes for the next phase of their lives. The caterpillars burrow into the sand and pupate into a form that remains underground for 8-15 days. Then, the big transformation occurs and the moths emerge!

The moths spend their nights feeding and pollinating wildflowers, and then lay eggs on the undersides of flowers. The entire life cycle begins anew when the eggs hatch into very small caterpillars that begin to eat 24 hours a day on the flowers.

At the same time, Swainson’s hawks are making their way north from South America. They spend time in the desert around Borrego and have been known to feast on the caterpillars. Birders gather daily for the hawk watch. It was a gamble where or when they might be spotted. During my visit, I was disappointed to see that the hawks were in kettles a great distance away. Meer specks. I had expected to see them near the ground picking off the fat worms.

Unfortunately, I could not stick around long enough for the emergence of the moths, but I bet that’s something to see!

The superbloom, however, was a great treat.

The Spotless Ladybug and Other Garden Insects

ladybug2I’d been wearing my ladybug earrings recently, in honor of spring, and it seems it was a prescient act. Recently I saw a bazillion ladybugs in my yard! OK, not a bazillion, but I saw one, then another, and another, and finally realized there were a lot on my rose bushes! Not that there were any aphids or other pests that I could see, but I was glad to have the little red ladies.

From what I could see, these ladybugs were all small, spotless girls.

ladybug3I grew up with the image of a deep red ladybug, usually sporting two black spots. But my visitors were much smaller and had no spots.

Some people call them ladybirds.

Ladybug, ladybug fly away home. Your house is on fire and your children will burn.

ladybug4Despite their gentle name and lovable reputation among children and gardeners, ladybugs are feisty little beetles. Their scientific family of Coccinellidae includes ladies of various shades of red, orange or even yellow, and many variations of spots.

ladybug5

They are found worldwide. From my research on the web, I’m thinking my species is Harmonia axyridis, which varies greatly from red and orange to black, with no spots, a few spots, or lots of spots! This is the one that came from Asia and is now widely established in North America, South America, Europe and South Africa.

Lady beetles are ladybug7valued as predators of garden pests, including aphids and scale, but scientists have learned that they also eat such plant materials as fungi, pollen, and nectar. They’ve even been known to become cannibalistic, eating eggs and larvae of other ladybugs when food is scarce.

Ladybugs to the rescue

ladybug roseLast year an invasion of aphids attacked my honeysuckle, leaving it looking pretty sad, with its deformed, unopened flowers. Once I realized the shrub was not dying for water and that there were aphids all over, I went to work.

I discovered that aphids cause the flowers to look like “witches brooms,” aptly named as the flower buds look like curved broom heads.

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They just stay that way and never fully open, so my honeysuckle looked like all the flowers had died.

 

DSC_0123I have learned that this is an issue with certain honeysuckle species, so I’ll have to live with it. Advice on the web is to cut off much of the plant during winter, before the larvae can hatch. Also, spraying with a solution of dish soap and water can get rid of some.

DSC_0119So far, my plant is looking OK, though there is a lot of evidence of aphids again. I got out my spray bottle again. I then saw a few ladybugs on the plant. “Do your thing, do your thing,” I told them.

DSC_0113 Several states have named the ladybug as the state insect, including Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, Tennessee and New York. New York went further by specifically designating the native North American species, Coccinella novemnotata, the nine-spotted ladybug. This species has declined as the European seven-spotted ladybeetle and the Asian species I mentioned above have spread.

Ornate Hoppers

While I was scouting out ladybugs on my plants, I noticed a bunch of leaf hoppers. Hoppers are tiny, narrow insects, generally regarded as pests because they suck juices from vegetation. But I always recall macro photos of them in field guides that spotlight their beautiful colors. My leaf hoppers were a blue-green, with dark blue or black stripes on its wings.

leafhoppersIt might be a “sharpshooter” leaf hopper. As with the beetle family, leaf hoppers can come in psychedelic colors. Some have red and turquoise stripes, or bright orange with green and blue; even a most artistic pattern of blue and yellow streaks.

leafhoppers3What is the function of such color in the insect world? It certainly isn’t camouflage.

Blending In

But an insect that blends right in with its environment is the lacewing, another beneficial garden bug. I happened to see a few around my house. Only about an inch long, they have bodies of delicate green, and as the name implies, wings that are translucent and lacy looking. They are common to North America and Europe, and similar to ladybugs in lifestyle. They eat aphids, caterpillars, mites and other insect larvae and eggs. Garden plants that are said to attract lacewings include coreopsis, cosmos, dandelions, sunflowers and dill. In that case, lacewings should be pretty common! I’ve got enough dandelions to support a town of lacewings! And I’ve planted cosmos and sunflowers.