American Dagger Caterpillar, Cute—Not Cuddly

American dagger caterpillar

I grabbed my phone and dashed outside to take pictures.

I didn’t need to be quiet or stealthy or dressed in camouflage. My prey wasn’t a squirrel or bird or bunny, and it was still there after I ran around the back of the house and entered the front yard.

I’d spotted the neon-yellow, fuzzy caterpillar with four black spikes through my kitchen window, a gateway to what I think of as an urban wildlife reserve in my front yard.

The caterpillar was oblivious to me while I snapped pictures. Next, I opened an app on my phone that lets me submit a picture of an animal, insect, or plant then identifies my subject. (This kind of stuff reminds me of watching Star Trek in the 1960s.)

My app revealed that the neon-yellow critter would become an American dagger moth. The moth’s markings are pretty—a symmetrical combination of geometrics and zigzags, but its coloring—shades of black to pale gray—give a gloomy, mysterious vibe. Cloak and dagger, I thought, imagining a tiny dagger concealed under the cloak of each wing.

I wondered, Why the name dagger? and What did it eat? and What ate it?

James Baker, Professor Emeritus of North Carolina State, explains the name dagger comes from the patterns on its forewings, which look like tiny daggers “if you have a good imagination.” I don’t see it, but I still think I’ve got a good imagination—remember my fantasy about moths concealing tiny daggers.

My research revealed it’s not a good idea to touch or pick up these fluffy caterpillars because they can cause skin irritations. I never contemplated picking it up. Doesn’t matter how adorable an insect is, I don’t touch it.

American dagger caterpillars eat the leaves of hardwood trees like maple, and there are three mature maples my yard. I couldn’t find any information about what eats the caterpillar. But after reading about caterpillars that sting or cause skin irritations, I’m guessing nothing does. It’s bright color and black spines serve notice to predators—danger, danger, warning—do not eat. However, bats and birds and lots of other critters eat American dagger moths in both its larvae and adult stages.

Research suggested that if you want to get rid of dagger moth caterpillars, brush them away with a broom or step on them (warning—not barefooted!) or treat your yard with a landscape insecticide. Given that dagger moth caterpillars rarely travel in marauding herds, this sounded like shooting a fly with a cannon or lighting a candle with a blowtorch or grating cheese with a chainsaw. People tend to see only one or two of them at a time. I’ve only seen one all summer.

A better idea is to understand the importance larvae and moths (and benign caterpillars) have in the food chain. A better idea is to live together with nature. A better idea is to abandon the idea of perfect lawns and landscapes sponsored by too many chemicals.

Middle of the Ocean

September 6, 2021

I went paddle boarding on Superior Bay today because every day I get on the water before winter is a treasure.

Along the outside of Barker’s Island, northeasterly winds pushed against me and made the water choppy. To avoid becoming a human sail shoved in the wrong direction, I knelt, paddled fast, and kept the board moving forward.

After I rounded the tip of the island and entered the calm waters on the marina side, I stood up, slowed down, and looked around. The jubilant sky was azure blue with wispy clouds, as if Bob Ross had painted them with a wide brush, using bold, sweeping strokes of brilliant white paint, while cooing, “Let’s add happy clouds in the sky.”

It’s a tale of two sides of the island when the wind comes out of the northeast, and I could’ve made up for lost time. Instead, I paddled as if I were strolling through botanical gardens. White clouds lilted across the blue sky. Ducks swam on the water and took flight when I neared. Boats pulled out of slips, headed to open waters. Children ran on the sandy beach, then dipped their feet in the lake.

I glided by the marina and noticed my favorite boat—a 66-foot yacht named after a righteous Disney character—moored at its slip. Someone polished its gleaming white surface while listening to the song “Middle of the Ocean.” The soothing lyrics and lazy tune serenaded me, as I edged by the yacht, which could cross the ocean if it wanted to.

When winter comes, I wonder if my dream yacht will sail for warmer waters or enter winter storage.

I’ll deflate my paddle board and go snowshoeing—and hum the tune “Middle of the Ocean.”

Flying Wally

The bird feeders are supposed to be for birds. The baffle keeps squirrels from accessing the feeders. They climb the pole, reach the baffle, try to climb over it, but slip when it tilts.

Then Wally, a grey squirrel, showed up last week. (He was nameless when he arrived.) I was washing dishes and looking out the window where I’m often entertained in turns by different birds, rabbits, and squirrels. Chickadees flit from the cedar tree, grab a sunflower seed, zoom back to the tree, eat, and repeat. Goldfinches and cardinals come with their mates and perch on the trays of the feeders. Juncos eat spilled seeds off the ground, and nuthatches hang upside down on the feeders, picking seeds through the mesh. Rabbits munch on dandelion leaves, clover, and grass, and squirrels also forage seeds from the ground.

Wally wanted a bigger share of the sunflower seeds. Winter is coming. He needs to prepare by storing fat, both for insulation against the cold and for energy reserves when food is scarce. He climbed the pole and tried to circumvent the baffle. He failed, but he didn’t give up. He climbed one shepherd’s hook and perched on the curve closest to the feeders hung on another shepherd’s hook. He looked, he calculated, he jumped. And he missed, landing gracelessly on the ground. He climbed the shepherd’s hook again, looked, calculated, jumped. And missed. He ran off, I assumed, humiliated—I would’ve been.

But Wally came back the next day. As I did dishes (again), I watched him climb the shepherd’s hook, look, calculate, and jump. I waited for him to fall to earth. But he stuck a perfect four-paw landing on top of the shepherd’s hook with the bird feeders. He paused for a moment, and I wondered if he was relishing his aerial triumph. Then he climbed onto a feeder, clutched the mesh, hung upside down, and noshed seed. The bird feeders are supposed to be for birds. I opened the kitchen window, and the noise sent him leaping to the ground and scrambling around the corner of the house.

I felt a twinge of guilt. It was only a three-foot jump, but it was precise, balanced, impressive. Squirrels are designed for jumping, and horizontal leaps of six to nine feet are routine. They have muscular, oversized hind legs, double-jointed ankles, and needle-sharp claws. Wally is designed for breaking into bird feeders.

I kept washing dishes, while, as it turns out, Wally was regrouping. In less than five minutes, he was back—his need to winterize overrode his fear of the noise I created. He climbed one shepherd’s hook and looked to the other one with the feeders. I thought, You can’t make the leap twice in a row. He jumped. I thought, You’re going to fall. He executed another perfect four-paw landing, climbed onto the mesh of the feeder, and continued eating while hanging upside down.

I admired Wally’s talent and tenacity. I didn’t open the kitchen window. I let him eat. I’ve lots of seed in the basement. The birds can share.

Because this squirrel keeps visiting the feeder, and hasn’t missed a jump since he mastered it, I named him Wally in honor of the Flying Wallendas.

Grey squirrels don’t hibernate, and I wonder, Does Wally have a prediction about the coming winter? If I leave the second shepherd’s hook up for the winter, maybe he’ll keep showing off his leaping skills, so he can stuff himself with sunflower seeds on cold days. And I’ll be entertained while doing the dishes.

Paddle Boarding in August

A calm day. A cloudless, blue sky.

Floatplanes, motorboats, yachts, fishing boats, kayaks, paddle boards.

As I paddled by the marina, so many boats pulled out of their slips. I thought about cars exiting a parking ramp at quitting time.

59 minutes around Barker’s Island, my best time yet.

The best moment—six ducks in the water, their twitching butts pointed toward the sky while they ate their lunch underwater.

Shifting Perspectives

The bumble bee is working, flitting from flower to flower and slurping nectar. I’m drinking a cup of coffee and watching it work. You might say that makes me a supervisor, but the bumble bee knows what it’s doing and should never take direction from me. I’m not an apiarist, a botanist, a zoologist, a biologist, an entomologist. I’m not an -ist person. I’m an -er person, a reader, a writer, a photographer. So, I watch the bumble bee and take pictures because I’m going to write about it and my morning stroll around my gardens.

Finding the bumble bee on its nectar run delights me because I’ve stopped by the garden behind my shed to see what the rabbits noshed after I made my evening rounds yesterday. The rabbits like the leaves on my Asiatic lilies and have nibbled half of them back to the stalk. To a lesser extent, the rabbits also like my zinnias and dianthus. The lilies, pale yellow with dusky-red centers, bloomed profusely this year. I hope the lilies store enough energy through photosynthesis before the rabbits eat the rest of their leaves. (Yeah, I remember something from tenth-grade biology.)

Asiatic lilies before blooms faded and rabbits ate the leaves

I provide alternative food for the rabbits—my lawn is a mixture of grass, clover, wild strawberries, and dandelions, plus a few plants I’m unable to name. I’m thrilled when I see rabbits eating clover or dandelion leaves. But they still view my gardens as dessert trays.

Bees, butterflies, and other insects like clover and dandelions too. Dandelions are an import source of nectar to bees and other insects in the spring before flowers bloom. After learning how vital dandelions are to bees and other insects, I stopped digging them up.

Because bees and butterflies suffer from disappearing habitats, I plant flowers that provide nectar for them. Recently, I learned native plants are also important to caterpillars because they nibble on the leaves to store up the energy needed to become moths and butterflies. And, guess what? Birds need to eat those protein-rich caterpillars to store energy for laying eggs and raising their young. Now, when I notice my plant leaves have been gnawed, I see those “damaged” leaves as part of an important food chain.

While I’m planning more gardens for bees and butterflies, and begrudgingly, the rabbits, the bumble bee darts from yellow sundrops to flowering spearmint to tomato blossoms. I raise my coffee cup to the bumble bee and thank it for pollinating my tomatoes.

[For more about the importance of dandelions to the insect world, read “The War on Dandelions Is Killing Bees, But It Doesn’t Have To.” For more about the importance of caterpillars for birds, read “Singing Praise for Caterpillars.” To learn about the bird-larvae-caterpillar-moth-butterfly food chain and how it can limit pests in your garden, read “Birds Do Eat Butterflies.” If toxic insects and birds don’t worry you, it should. Read about Biomagnification, to understand how toxins used to kill weeds and insects impact animals and humans.]

Mayflies

My view of Mayflies before learning about them

What I knew about mayflies: They’re called mayflies and they molt. I could’ve put my knowledge in a thimble and had room for War and Peace.

What I thought about mayflies: They’re creepy looking, and the exoskeletons they shed are even creepier. I could’ve imagined them starring in a B movie titled, Return of the Giant Mayflies.

Then in June my almost-ten-year-old granddaughter asked, “Why are they called mayflies? I never see them until June.”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “We’re going to have to look that up.” (My standard refrain to cover up my embarrassment because I can’t answer one of her questions about the natural world around me.)

But I had a theory: If mayflies arrive in here in June, perhaps they appear in May in other parts of the Midwest. I live at the western tip of Lake Superior. Everything in spring arrives late because around here winter doesn’t like to pack its bags and leave.

It turned out my theory had holes. In the United States, mayflies hatch anywhere from May to September. Hatching usually starts near the end of May but peaks in June or July, depending on latitude and the current year’s weather. The name mayfly may be a misnomer. But I like the name, so even if they don’t appear around here until June, I’m not starting a movement to rename them juneflies. (Besides there are beetles called June bugs.) Depending on geography, mayflies are also called shadflies, sandflies, dayflies, fishflies, and drakes.

I learned more about mayflies than their aliases. They’re fascinating and useful insects. This shouldn’t have surprised me because our ecosystem is like an intricately woven tapestry of nature. Pull on one thread and the effect ripples through the whole landscape. I was ignorant to assume their only purpose was to gross me out every June.

After mayflies become adults, they molt once. Every year I’d see their exoskeletons stuck to my screen doors, siding, plants, and deck furniture, and I’d cringe. Filmy, cracked, and devoid of color, exoskeletons are eerie. But after learning about mayflies, I look at their abandoned outwear and think about their amazing lives.

Mayflies are adults for only one or two days, and on rare occasions three days, accounts vary. They begin life in the water as fertilized eggs. After they hatch they’re called nymphs and spend about a year (depending on the species) lounging at the bottom of riverbeds and lake bottoms. While not as beautiful as the water nymphs of Greek mythology known for protecting gods and humans who were in peril, the mayfly nymphs are important. They help clean water by eating algae and detritus. And scientists use the number of mayfly larvae present in a river or lake as a bioindicator to gauge the water’s health. So mayfly nymphs can protect humans by informing us if our water quality is in jeopardy–if we’re smart enough to listen.

Before mayflies leave their water homes, they shed their nymph skins, so they can take flight for the first time. At this point they’re called duns (or subimagos). After coming to the water’s surface, they rest and dry their wings. Waterfowl and fish dine on some of them. The duns that survive the predators fly away from the water and molt one last time, becoming adults called spinners (or imagos).

After emerging from the watery homes of their adolescence, mayflies have only one concern–to mate and produce eggs. They don’t have functioning mouths so they can’t eat. As adults they don’t have to worry about finding food or feeding their young. They don’t have to worry about a career path or a mortgage. They don’t have to worry about saving for retirement or signing up for Medicare. As adults they molt, mate, lay eggs if they’re female, and die, all in a day or two.

Of course, a mayfly’s adult life isn’t completely worry free. If spinners are to achieve their one adult ambition–reproduction–they must avoid becoming fresh meat for fish and birds. They also need to conserve energy for mating and laying eggs. This explains why the mayflies I see on my screen door or deck are so impervious to me: It’s risky for them to use up energy by fleeing from me.

After molting, adult males return to an imaginary dance floor above the water. Flying up and forward, then floating down, they beckon the female spinners to dance with them. The spinners pair up and mate in midair. All this looks nothing like my first seventh-grade dance, where boys and girls stood on opposite sides of the gym and gawked at each other. [Watch BBC’s Beautiful Video Clip About Mayflies to see the mayfly mating ritual.]

After the circle-of-life dance, the females descend to the water to lay fertilized eggs. Some females become food for fish before they deposit their eggs. In my research, I learned fly fishers use tied flies resembling duns then spinners during mayfly season. But many females do deposit their eggs, which drift to the bottom of a river or lake. Then most females die, but a few manage to mate again and lay another batch of eggs because they have extra energy reserves, most likely because of what they ate as larvae. (But I like to imagine they have extra energy because they danced a slow waltz instead of a hot-footed jig during their first tango with a male spinner.) Two weeks later the eggs hatch into nymphs.

My new view of mayflies: Lovely as flowers

Before my mayfly education, when I saw mayflies clinging to my door or siding or deck furniture, I left them alone. I didn’t touch them because they creeped me out. Now I can say I leave them alone because I understand they’re saving energy for their big dance. Now, I can appreciate mayflies for purifying rivers and lakes, for working as bioindicators, and for being part of the food chain. Now, I can answer my granddaughter’s question about why mayflies seem to be misnamed.

We need to cherish mayflies and protect them, and if their numbers decrease in our lakes and rivers, we need to figure out why.

[To read more about mayflies: Mayflies: National Wildlife Federation and Britannica: Mayfly. If you live where mayflies swarm, read How to Survive a Massive Mayfly Swarm by Leslie Mertz, Ph.D. Don’t worry it’s not as scary as my imaginary horror flick, Return of the Giant Mayflies.]

Butterfly Story

[Author’s note: In the summer of 2019, I took care of my grandkids, and we went to the Superior Public Library once or twice a week. During the summer of 2020, the pandemic and social distancing kept us at home and playing outside.]

Three grandkids, five days a week, seven hours a day, and a limited budget summed up my summer days in 2019. Anything free was good, so when the Superior Public Library hosted a free presentation about monarch butterflies, I took Clara, almost eight; Michael, six; and Evan, almost three.

The presenter discussed butterflies and their stages of life. Clara who loves nature, absorbed every word. Later, she remarked, “That was a really good presentation.” Michael listened intently, too. But Evan scampered from chair to chair. Finally, I took his hand and retreated to the Children’s Library with him.

Before the butterfly talk, Clara and her brother, Michael, spotted plastic cups lined up on the table. Each cup’s rim supported a chrysalis suspended from a stick.

“Nana, can we take one home?” Clara asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Your mom has a lot on her plate with school and work.”

I didn’t know the presenter would be giving away flying insects. Vibrant colors and eye-catching patterns aside, a butterfly is a flying insect.

“Can we keep it at your house?” Clara is the Princess of Plan-B Solutions.

“No, what if it emerges when I’m sleeping?” I imagined the butterfly carousing through my house and dive-bombing my head in the morning while I drank coffee.

“Monarchs move slowly after they emerge,” the presenter said, “and the chrysalis will turn nearly black before the butterfly emerges, so you’ll be prepared.” The presenter wasn’t siding with me—he had cups and cups of future butterflies to pass along.

Clara looked wistful and dejected at the same time. I couldn’t tell her I was afraid to look a butterfly in the eye. It could’ve been worse—she liked spiders too. If the presentation had been about spiders, we might have been offered a spider’s egg sac.

“Okay,” I said, “we’ll keep it at my house.”

“Yay.” Clara celebrated with a double fist pump. Michael grinned.

After the presentation we took the chrysalis home, and I set it on my kitchen table. Each time Clara, Michael, and Evan came over, we checked the chrysalis for any sign of blackness.

A few weeks later, instead of greeting me with good morning, my husband said, “That butterfly flew out of its cup while I was eating breakfast. Scared the heck out of me.”

“What did you do with it?” I asked.

“I put the cup in front of it, and it walked back in the cup,” he said. “I put a piece of paper toweling over the cup.” I remembered the presenter saying a newly emerged butterfly moved slowly.

An hour later while I ate breakfast, the butterfly knocked the paper towel off the cup and flew down to the floor. I screamed. My heart thumped. I used my husband’s cup technique. The butterfly walked into the cup, which I took outside and placed on the patio table.

Fifteen minutes later, my grandkids arrived. They dashed up the side stairs and onto the deck. I went outside to greet them. The butterfly, still on the patio table, basked in the sun.

“Look,” I said, “the monarch hatched.”

Beating wings interrupted their oohs and aahs as the butterfly took flight up and over the roof of the house.

“Our butterfly waited to see you before it flew away,” I said.

Clara nodded knowingly.

“Yeah, it really did,” Michael said.

In the weeks that followed, every time Clara, Michael, Evan, and I saw a monarch butterfly in my yard, I said, “Look, it’s our butterfly.”

One day, Clara, my little naturalist, set me straight. “You know, Nana, there are more monarchs around here than just ours!”

[I orignally wrote this story in 2019 for my grandkids and included picutres of them and the butterfly with the story. I printed a copy for each them and stapled the pages together. They each enjoyed having their own “book” about our butterfly experience.]