Spring’s Living Things
This has been a strange year for weather. Warm when it should be cold, very little snow and overall it feels like winter never really came. For those of you who are skiers, it has likely been quite disappointing. As we approach Easter, I am excited for my favorite season which is just around the corner. Spring brings blooming flowers and lots of bugs. Having grown up in a home with five sisters and now raising three daughters of my own, I have many times been shocked when I have heard the shrill scream from the far reaches of the basement thinking it must be a murderer in a mask who broke into my house with a machete, only to find out it was just a cry to summon me to come and smash a bug that I am roughly 300 times taller than and 5 million times heavier. Maybe it is this duty that I have performed a few million times that makes me fascinated with bugs, or maybe it is my fly fishing addiction which draws me to understand and study bugs. I have seen many a bad fishing day suddenly transform into great days just by being able to “match the hatch,” or find the bug that fish want to eat.
While I have to admit that many bugs are creepy and crawly and give me the chills, I get excited each spring to see all the new blooms and flowers and even some of the bugs. These are a few of the bugs that are exciting to see and learn about.
Speaking of beetles, when I lived in the Philippines there was a fascinating beetle that I loved seeing. Called the Buprestidae, but more commonly known as jewel beetles, they have a metallic iridescent greenish blue shell that looks like metal. Filipino children would often catch these bugs and tie a piece of string around their legs. The beetles would then take off in flight and the kids would hold the string and the jewel beetles would fly in circles around their heads. Nothing quite beats a homemade toy like that.
The Coccinellidae (Lady Bug) is a small, typically red, beetle. I distinctly remember playing with these fascinating and useful insects when I was young. Lady bugs and rolly pollies were always fun backyard entertainment. Lady bugs typically feed on agricultural pests like aphids so they help the gardeners among us keep our plants from getting gnawed on and damaged by herbivore bugs. These small beetles have a beautiful red or yellow domed protective shell that separates to reveal and allow the use of their wings. The shell often has spots or stripes on it. One myth that is unfounded is that the number of dots on the shell of these beetles indicates their age. Actually the number of dots is determined by the species and genetics of the bug.
How did the lady bug get its name? In Europe these typically friendly red bugs are known as ladybirds instead of ladybugs. In Britain the insects became known as “Our Lady’s Bird” or the Lady Beetle. Mary (our Lady) was often depicted wearing a red cloak in early paintings, and the spots of the seven spot ladybird were said to symbolize her seven joys and seven sorrows. In the US, the name adapted over time to become “Ladybug.” These are a beautiful and helpful bug that are fun to play with and some even say they are good luck.
This is one of the strangest bugs on the earth. With thousands of variations, caterpillars are the larval stage of butterflies and moths. There are more than 20,000 different species of caterpillar that we know about in the world. There are likely more species that just haven’t been uncovered yet.
Caterpillars have soft bodies that can actually grow quite quickly. They can range from very small, roughly one millimeter, to fairly long at 14 centimeters. Caterpillars are a favorite protein rich source of food for many animals, so they have evolved and developed many defenses to protect themselves. These defenses range from bright colors and stripes to swelling parts of their body to be more intimidating and even growing spikes that make them less susceptible to being eaten. Sometimes they will link together in a caterpillar train to make themselves look longer for self-defense. Some are even poisonous and are therefore uneatable. These fascinating creatures will eat their body weight nearly every day—that is a lot of eating.
Female Monarch Butterflies (the orange and black ones) lay their eggs on milkweed plants and they will hatch in four to six days. Then the monarch caterpillar will live in caterpillar or larva stage for 28-38 days. After hatching, a caterpillar is so small that it can barely be seen, but it grows very quickly, shedding its skin five times and growing to roughly two inches in as little as nine days.
After roughly a month, the caterpillar will find a safe location and shed its skin one last time and enter the pupa stage, where metamorphosis occurs. The caterpillar forms a chrysalis, sometimes mischaracterized as a cocoon, inside of which the caterpillar becomes a beautiful butterfly. Cocoons, in case you were wondering, are what moth caterpillars form to metamorphose into a moth.
Butterflies are one of the most beautiful insects in the world. Their colors and patterns are loved by people the world over. They are a sure sign of the warmer weather of summer. Here are some of the most common Utah caterpillars and their associated butterflies.