Sunday, June 6, 2021

Adventures in Pupating

One of the strange things about gardening is witnessing the relationships between certain plants and certain bugs. I don't mean something as broad as “bees and flowers,” where any old bee might visit any old bloom. No, I mean something deeply, peculiarly specific.

For instance, I didn't know squash beetles were a thing until the year we tried to grow butternut squash. At first the plants went like gangbusters, then all of a sudden they began to wilt and turn sickly. My wife showed me the problem on the underside of the leaves, the patches of little red dots that turned out to be clutches of eggs.

Caterpillars crawling on dill planted in an old yogurt container
Three caterpillars and some
droopy-looking dill.
A lot of them had already hatched. I just hadn't noticed, because squash beetles are masters of hiding. Any time I got a little too close they'd scuttle to the other side of the leaf and wait until I was gone. It wasn't until I deliberately began to look for them that I realized how many we actually had. But by then it was much too late. 

Things aren't always that grim. Sometimes the bugs are quite welcome. Our dill, for instance, attracts swallowtail butterflies whose caterpillars will eat nothing else. And look, I like dill as much as the next guy, but you only need so much of the stuff to put in potatoes. We tend to have more than we need.

So we take a very laissez faire attitude to pulling it up, even when it grows where it isn't supposed to. It seems like bad karma to pull up a plant that could yield a swallowtail, and we don't need any more of that, thank you.

What we didn't realize last year was that all this extra dill would attract more than the swallowtails. After a couple weeks of checking on our caterpillars, we walked outside to discover a trio of marauding wasps plucking them off the plants and devouring them whole.

I know nature is all “kill or be killed,” but this was still pretty jarring. By the time the wasps were done there were no caterpillars left on the dill. With attrition like that, it's a miracle the swallowtail isn't already extinct.

Making preparations for a cocoon. See 
that silk around its midsection harnessing
it to the stalk?

This memory was still fresh in our minds as the spring crop of dill started to grow. The caterpillars followed soon after, little dark specks that quickly fattened up into colorful creatures from Alice in Wonderland. We decided we'd do what we could to help see a few of them through to adulthood.

So we pulled up the dill and carried it in, placing the plants in dirt to keep green for as long as possible. The caterpillars ate, and they grew, and they ate some more. We brought in fresh dill and they mowed it all down, nary a wasp in sight.

Now, knowing what I do of life on this earth, I should have been prepared for this next part, but somehow I wasn't. Somehow I did not expect the caterpillars to poop. And poop. And POOP. I mean, my god, by the time they got a couple inches long that seemed to be all our crop of caterpillars did, and the size of the droppings grew as quickly as they did. It was impressive, if a little unsanitary, and all as they continued to relentlessly gobble the dill.

And then, the grand climax: one of them suddenly shit his little brains out. We thought something had gone terribly wrong, but no, this was the final stage before building a chrysalis--they void themselves completely, getting ready for their great transformation. 

Now, we wait. The first of the cocoons have started to form while the others continue to eat. If you see a some extra swallowtail flapping around this year, or some wasps that look like they've missed a few meals, you know who to blame.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...