Woolybear Caterpillar Races

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
Nature can be good company and a good teacher.

Submitted: September 04, 2016

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Submitted: September 04, 2016



Henry’s interest in insects manifested itself at the age of seven when he tried biological control of houseflies. Houseflies of course were and still are a serious health problem but back in the late 40’s and early 50’s they were suspected of carrying infantile paralysis, now known as polio. As there were no aerosol sprays available, the usual deterrents were sticky flypapers or trays of DDT placed on windowsills. We know today that DDT remains in the environment for a very long time! He used to notice the poison trays and dead flies in R.C. Matthew’s corner grocery store window. Naturally enough the neighborhood used to call him, ‘Arsey’, which was a rude word to Henry, which always made him laugh when he heard it.

Henry had his eye on two brown cases with small white dots on them that were on the back paling fence. He knew that they were praying mantis egg cases and he was waiting patiently to watch them hatch. He missed the actual hatching, but managed to catch half a dozen baby mantises and sored them in a jam jar covered with paper and secured with a rubber band. He had an old aquarium in the stable that he used to rear different insects and sometimes frogs, so he repositioned them and cleaned it out to grow on the mantises.

He had no idea what to feed mantises but guessed they must eat small insects, so he put in a few cabbage leaves from the garden that were infested with grey aphids.  He suspected a few of the mantises even ate their siblings, because the number dwindled to three, but anyway the remainder seemed to grow quickly on a diet of grey aphids and some green ones from his Mum’s roses.

He convinced Mum to remove the DDT trays, and he let the mantises loose on the kitchen window sill and on the curtains, not realizing that one fly was enough food for a few days, per mantis. To make sure each mantis was fed, he caught flies, pulled off their wings and fed them alive. It was interesting to watch how they killed them by nibbling off their heads while delicately holding them in their prayer grip.

Patient Mum did not complain about the presence of the mantises nor the extra flies that came along. She just used a swat whenever Henry wasn’t around!

The next summer, Henry found some wooly-bear caterpillars on a groundsel plant. These are the well-known caterpillars that are black with orange/yellow stripes and are, as the name suggests, quite hairy. His wise nature study teacher had told him that the colour was to warn birds that they were poisonous, but Mr. Ennor wasn’t quite right because Henry saw a shining cuckoo fly up to a tree with one in its beak.

He kept the caterpillars in Agee jars as usual with paper tops, held in place with rubber bands and of course with holes punched to allow air to flow. There was plenty of groundsel in their garden so he gave his caterpillars fresh food daily. They repaid him with copious amounts of poo!

His Dad had one of those old-fashioned ribbed, red, rubber hose attached to the sprinkler for the lawn but Henry hatched other plans for it. Although he had never seen or heard of them at the time, he fashioned what amounts to a mini roller coaster track with it.

On this roller coaster hose he used to race three or four of his wooly-bear caterpillars at a time! He used to commentate on the race, a cross between the race commentators on the radio and Spike Jones’ Beetle-bomb.

‘This time and they are on the journey and Leading-light is in the lead, Chewing-gum is sticking to the rail, and Toothpaste is being squeezes in the middle, but look out here comes Beetle-bomb!’

Quite naturally, he thought the exercise would do them good and he cajoled, ok, forced them to race along the hose for a yard or so, poking them with a finger to keep them on track and another poke on the bum to keep them moving along for an eventual reward of a feed of groundsel. Allowing them to rest after their yard of hurrying seemed to be fair to his mind.

In their Agee jars, the caterpillars performed nature’s magic and turned first into a chrysalis and then emerged as magpie moths, with their dusty black/brown wings and white dots.

It was a thrill for him when he released them, with no practice at all, they flittered in seconds, the distance that as caterpillars took ages when crawling that old hosepipe!

Magpie moths were introduced to help control ragwort, a pasture pest in New Zealand, especially in the wetter areas. The weed is poisonous to stock.

Most gardens will have groundsel growing because the seed floats in the air much like a mini dandelion and it is good green fodder for canaries.

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