Tag Archives: eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum)

Little things and the follower

I have been remiss.  Not just recently, but over these past months.  Remiss in what, you ask?  In posting photos, of course!

Mind you, I’ve been busy.  I now live at our family farm in East Texas, thus I pull my weight with farm work each and every day.  Also, I’ve been somewhat myopic in my focus on writing, namely with regards to my first, second and third novels.

But none of this means I’ve disregarded my passion for photography.  Instead, it means I’ve accumulated an unhealthy number of photographs which have yet to be shared.  Then again, that describes my usual state with regards to pictures: I take far more than will ever be seen by anyone but me, and regularly I’m forced to delete vast swaths of digital data to make room for vast swaths of new digital data.

Oh well.

Lest I careen off the tracks of coherence and ramble ad nauseam about how little time I have, let me instead direct this train of thought toward my point.  Assuming I have a point, I mean.

Back in March of this year I ambled about our delightful haven tucked away in the Piney Woods.  With home nestled in the wild, it’s never difficult to find things of interest, and so it was on that marvelously comfortable spring day when…

An eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum) crawling along a bit of dead wood (IMG_0426)

…I first discovered a veritable horde of eastern tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum) wandering throughout the farm, from deep in the woods to right outside the door.  Because they produce cyanide, the primary reason for their aposematic coloration, the chickens avoid them and Cooter, our miniature pinscher (or “min pin” for short), must be restrained from eating them.

He eats pretty much anything he can get in his mouth save broccoli, so we really have to manage his consuming ways.  It’s not uncommon for him to eat something and then spend several hours swelling from allergic reactions or vomiting from an upset tummy.  But anyway…

The tent caterpillars obviously had a good year given their abundance and everywhere travels.  And whilst snapping pictures of the little poisonous critter, something leaped over my foot and landed atop a bed of dry leaves.  Taking a closer look revealed…

A northern cricket frog (Acris crepitans) sitting atop dead leaves (IMG_0469)

…a northern cricket frog (Acris crepitans)!  One of the smallest vertebrates in North America, with adults hardly larger than a thumbprint, these amphibians always bring a smile to my face.

Not just because they’re so small, mind you, but also because they’re quite vocal during mating season and because—at least here in Texas—it’s not difficult to find them throughout the year.  Assuming the weather cooperates, of course.

But I had walked to “the bottom” as we call it—where a natural spring and the old pump house hide in woods that stretch down steep hills—because I wanted to check on Mom’s beloved dogwoods.  Drought and fire had done in many of the trees.  Well, drought and fire had done in many trees period, but I had gone to check on the dogwoods, so let’s keep our focus there.

Much to my surprise and Mom’s joy…

Close-up of a bloom on flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) (IMG_0570)

…flowering dogwoods (Cornus florida) had indeed survived, although their numbers stand greatly reduced.  And with the tent caterpillars lurking about, well, they’ve become an endangered species at the farm, hence I try to keep an eye on them and initiate action should they need assistance.

With dogwoods confirmed as alive and well, even if in small numbers, I left the bottom and made my way beyond the high pasture to the woods atop the hill, a hill whereupon one can see for miles.  And in the woods…

An unidentified seedling growing through a thick verdant carpet of atrichum moss (a.k.a. lesser smoothcap; Atrichum angustatum) (IMG_0470)

…atrichum moss (a.k.a. lesser smoothcap; Atrichum angustatum) had created thick verdant carpets of green amidst the lifeless detritus from the previous autumn and the just-sprouting greens of a new spring.  Several mosses and moss-like plants had reclaimed the forest floor in patches that promised “soon will” in a world of “once was.”

Each deserved attention and each received close inspection.  And near one of them…

A perforate dome (Ventridens demissus) meandering across a sandy plot of land (IMG_0490)

…wandering across a sandy clearing a perforate dome (Ventridens demissus) carried its abode as it journeyed through woods that made the snail seem microscopic, where trees dwarfed the mollusk, mocked it even with calls of “Hey, tiny!” and “Short people got no reason…”

Undeterred by the utter barbarity of these ligneous cretins, the miniscule creature never thought twice about my in-its-face photography, instead focusing on its trip to who knows where with the intent of taking care of who knows what.

With such a focus on little things that caught my eye, not once did I move through the high tree world without full knowledge of my follower, its song clear and constant, its presence often visible, its curiosity forever contradicting its name.  For never far from me and always within sight was…

A hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) perched on a branch (IMG_0560)

…a hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus), flitting about from branch to branch and tree to tree, calling here and singing there, perpetually gazing at me, watching, monitoring, interested.

Though I’ve seen this species of bird many times, never has one been so adamantly attached to my location, the avian security guard protecting nature’s mall.  Or at least the inquisitive feathered onlooker who can’t stand not seeing the lumbering ape walking the woods.

Of tents and predators

Little more than a month ago as I wandered the eastern shore of White Rock Lake on a gorgeous spring morning, I came across a familiar site.

A colony of eastern tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum) in a sapling (20080405_02972)

Eastern tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum) had invaded a sapling and built a respectable web.  Many of the ravenous beasts crawled along the small limbs while a few meandered about the outside of their silken tent.  The true horde, though, remained inside.

Two eastern tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum) on the outside of their web (20080405_02974)

As I took a closer look, I couldn’t help but find myself enthralled with the spectacular beauty of these larvae.  Destructive though they may be, they offer a mesmerizing splash of colors and designs, a singular nod to nature’s fabulous handiwork.

A solitary eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum) climbing up a branch (20080405_02976)

I then forgot about the web and its inhabitants, and during subsequent walks I neither went back to check on them nor looked for additional colonies in other trees and other places.

Then yesterday I took special note of the growing abundance of a large fly, one of which kept visiting me on the patio in early evening.

After some investigation, I discovered this species is known as the friendly fly (a.k.a. government fly or large flesh fly; Sarcophaga aldrichi).  And it’s a predator or, to be more precise, a parasitoid.

A friendly fly (a.k.a. government fly or large flesh fly; Sarcophaga aldrichi) on the patio fence (20080516_05294)

Friendly flies are the single most important biological control mechanism for tent caterpillars.  Adult flies deposit live maggots on tent caterpillar cocoons, after which the maggots bore into the cocoons and feed on the pupating larvae.  This means the fly population grows only as the caterpillar population shrinks (or grows, depending on how you look at it), and a large outbreak of tent caterpillars means a subsequent increase in friendly flies.  Or so one would hope.

A friendly fly (a.k.a. government fly or large flesh fly; Sarcophaga aldrichi) on the patio fence (20080516_05292)

My fascination with the fly stemmed entirely from my fascination with insects, so it was only later that I realized the buzzing buddy really was a friend.  Non-biting and a pest only insofar as it swarms and lands on anything—like people and food—these large insects annoy us only because their numbers grow in direct relation to the service they provide: control of a defoliating monster that can cause significant damage.

A friendly fly (a.k.a. government fly or large flesh fly; Sarcophaga aldrichi) on the patio fence (20080516_05295)

[of special interest is that none of the fly images are macro shots]


I said fall webworms (Hyphantria cunea) had begun a nearly unprecedented invasion of Texas, or at least North Texas where I live.  I even mentioned the virtual downpour of these caterpillars at xocobra and LD’s place, where they fall through the trees in such large numbers that it sounds like rain.  They’re everywhere, something confirmed by the enormous infestation seen in Rick’s back yard as the tiny critters mass their attack and march unmercifully from limb to limb, tree to tree, until they have spun ethereal homes around every last bit of foliage.

And now they have arrived at the xenogere homestead.

Despite the unending rains that have prohibited me from getting out for walks at the lake lest I find myself mired in pits of mud and washed away by floods that don’t end, I have enjoyed witnessing a profound—dare I say biblical?—invasion of this caterpillar species.  They now swarm about my patio en masse from the bushes to the tree, and I even found one today trying to worm its way through the closed doors that lead to the living room (they’ve yet to make their way to the bedroom doors).

A fall webworm (Hyphantria cunea) on the patio fence (201_0187)

This one scampered about the fence as though in a hurry for reasons I could not possibly understand.  And oh how they scamper.

They are indeed fast little insects, what with all the legs involved in locomotion, and I had a terrible time trying to keep up with it as it rushed about in fevered passion to find yet one more leaf, one more branch, one more meal.

A fall webworm (Hyphantria cunea) on the patio fence (201_0186)

I chased it with abandon.  Dozens of clicks of the camera yielded little presentable evidence of the pursuit, however, as too often I found myself in possession of images clearly showing painted wood with a bit of blurry creature in one corner or another.

A fall webworm (Hyphantria cunea) on the patio fence (201_0180)

Yet there it is for all the world to see, a fall webworm enjoying one of the few bits of sunlight we’ve seen ’round these parts in at least two months.  How brief it was, too.

Now, much like what I witnessed at xocobra and LD’s place, not to mention Rick’s place, they rain down from my meager little tree like so much precipitation.  Only a few moments ago I stood and watched more than dozen tumble to the ground from the ligneous outcroppings dangling above my head.  They land, get their wits about them, and promptly climb to something higher than what the earth offers.

And they do these things in vast quantities.

An eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum) on a large web (178_7824)

At the family farm in March, though, I enjoyed seeing a large nest of these bottomless herbivores as they struggled to escape a fallen sapling.  Similar to fall webworms in that they build web nests in trees, the eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum) is larger and more colorful.

Mom worried terribly for her dogwoods, so an effort was undertaken to dispatch the horde.  What I didn’t tell her at the time was that such actions are fruitless unless acted upon at the first signs of a colony.  Otherwise, it’s too late.

A mass of eastern tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum) on a large web found on a fallen sapling (178_7825)