The air is crisp in my beautiful wildlife garden. The leaves are painted like a sunset and the woolly bear caterpillars are on the march. Normally, I warn folks not to handle caterpillars that look prickly just in case they are the stinging sort. But every kid knows the woolly bears are safe.
These gentle creatures live in lawns and fields eating grass, dandelions, violets and broad-leaf plantains. Old-timers believed that the width of the orange/brown band of hairs predicted how harsh the coming winter would be. As the cool weather starts to set in, these caterpillars leave their food plants in search of a sheltered area to hibernate through the winter. They tuck in under leaves, rocks and other moist hideouts. Those that survive the weather, and escape the watchful eyes of hungry predators, will wake up in the spring to eat some more and form a cocoon to finish their metamorphosis into the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella).
Another woolly bear you may encounter is the caterpillar of the Giant Leopard Moth or Eyed Tiger Moth (Hypercompe scribonia).
This caterpillar is somewhat larger than the Isabella, and when it rolls into its defensive posture you can see the bright red stripes on its skin. It is another kind of tiger moth and also eats dandelions, violets and plantain leaves.
The adult moth is lovely with black designs on a pure white background and shiny blue scales on its legs and back.
One more member of the tiger moth family is the Milkweed Tussock moth.
I love these little guys that look like they’re made of tufts of yarn. Since they eat in groups I move them over to the large leaves of common milkweed plants (Asclepias syriaca) so the Monarch butterfly caterpillars can have the more tender milkweed plants all to themselves. The tussock caterpillars spin cocoons and spend the winter that way and emerge as moths when the weather gets warm. The adult moths have orange bodies and silvery wings.
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