Certain trees in my neighborhood are currently supporting populations of growing Eastern Tent Moth caterpillars. Children were excited to tell me about the “nest” they saw “way high” up in the tree (about 15 feet up). The wild cherry (Prunusserotina) is often host to several clumps of these larvae, or baby moths, until they pupate (make a cocoon and change into the pupa stage in life). I hope the children will be encouraged to bring paper and crayons out to the playground and draw what they see. When teachers model this kind of documenting of observations, children often want to do it too! In warm weather the caterpillars climb all over the tree and are easier to catch. Cut a few branches and bring some caterpillars indoors for extended, closer viewing.
(Put the branch ends in water and into an enclosed container afterwards so the caterpillars won’t wander and can be put outdoors again.)
A butterfly species with a large caterpillar, Eric Carle style coloration (The Very Hungry Caterpillar), and a short life cycle would be ideal for classroom observation, so children could see the larvae mouth parts munching, the pupa form appear, and a beautiful adult insect emerge within a month’s time. I often use the not-so-colorful Cabbage White butterflies to show a butterfly lifecycle because the caterpillars are easy to find on collard and cabbage plants (look on the underside of the leaves of decorative cabbage plants that go to seed as the weather warms up).
What local species are active in your area during the school year? (Add a comment by clicking on the word “comment” below. Hint: write and save your comment in a separate document to cut and paste in, because the anti-spammer “capcha” box may time out before you are ready to submit your comment.)
Some species are endangered—check for “at-risk”, “threatened” or “endangered” status of North American species on the US Fish and Wildlife Species List (by state) , with the NatureServe Explorer (search for “butterflies and moths” to see list), and with a local Lepidopterist (scientist who studies butterflies and moths), and read the Lepidopterist SocietyStatement on Collecting before collecting any caterpillars. Many state societies, such as The Ohio Lepidopteristshave helpful websites.
Some caterpillars with hairs have stinging hairs and should not be handled. State Cooperative Extension Services (Florida, Hawai’i, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia) often have identification information.
Butterflies and moths—another animal shape to compare and contrast with our own. Pull out some scarves and pretend to become one!