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Urban Jungle

There’s a Caterpillar on Your Palm Plant, Daddy

They are many a gardener’s bane, but with a little time, caterpillars can bring great benefits to their habitat

By Anisha Jayadevan

It is with an odd sort of interest that my father points out the inhabitants among his plants in our garden. Odd, because he is not entirely happy with them. How dare these caterpillars eat his lily plant that had burst forth into pretty flowers just the week before? How dare the ants on his pomegranate constantly outwit his every move and eat away at the flowers of the plant, depriving us of its fruits?

But are the caterpillars not pretty? I ask innocently, trying to casually win him over to the side of embracing all life in his garden. They turn into the prettiest lily moths! You can watch this transformation unfold right in your garden! Imagine just being able to walk out into the garden every day and witness such a phenomenon. I lapse into gushing about the different stages of the metamorphosis.

My father nods impassively, and I am distinctly aware of a chord of agreement not being struck, let alone a chord of interest. Still, he let the lily moth caterpillars be that one time. And that was the end of his lily plants. They had been systematically eaten away by the caterpillars. Did I feel bad about it? A little.  But the lily moth that emerged some days later was beautiful.  I cannot say my father was as appreciative.

I soldier on.

“There’s a caterpillar on your palm plant, Daddy!” I point out. “Did you know some butterflies have specific host plants on which they lay their eggs, and which the caterpillars feed on? Sometimes the caterpillars ingest secondary compounds in the plant, which renders them distasteful for predators like birds. And the birds then begin to associate some caterpillars with bad tastes and avoid eating them. And then there are caterpillars that MIMIC….”

“Where is the caterpillar on my palm plant? I hadn’t spotted it,” my father cuts me short. Had I caught a glimmer of interest in his eyes before it turned into consternation? But no, I check back on the plant later that day and the caterpillar has been taken care of.

Hmph.

 

Caterpillars go through several developmental stages, and can look quite different in each phase. This is the caterpillar of the common Mormon butterfly on a curry leaf plant. In the earlier stages (top and bottom right), the caterpillar resembles bird poop to escape predation. In the bottom left panel, the caterpillar has developed eye-spots — another strategy to deter would-be predators. 
Photo: Shishir Rao

Caterpillars go through several developmental stages, and can look quite different in each phase. This is the caterpillar of the common Mormon butterfly on a curry leaf plant. In the earlier stages (top and bottom right), the caterpillar resembles bird poop to escape predation. In the bottom left panel, the caterpillar has developed eye-spots — another strategy to deter would-be predators. Photo: Shishir Rao

To my father’s credit, he does not use synthetic pesticides and fungicides in his garden, and resorts instead to neem oil. And he has been trying in vain to rid our garden of the tenacious, water-hungry Mexican lawn. And this was before I started evangelising about caterpillars and such. So it cannot be very difficult to win him over to my side. Right? Right.

I try changing tacks.

Where do I start? The beautiful, golden cocoons of the common crow butterflies? The chance to welcome migratory butterflies like the blue tiger and common crow on their passage from the Western to Eastern Ghats and back? The mind-boggling adaptations of butterflies and caterpillars to escape predation? The chance to puzzle over the relationship between ants and aphids?

Insects like caterpillars are useful to the garden! I tell my father one morning with fresh enthusiasm, as we pore over the caterpillars on his curry leaf plant. He is particularly sore about these new visitors, because he has tried repeatedly to grow curry leaf over the years without any luck (curry leaf, you must know, is as essential for Malayali cooking as is pepper and coconut oil). And here is a caterpillar thwarting attempt #1000.

Oh yes? He asks, sceptically, of my claim. How?

Well for one, many of the fruits we enjoy from the garden are thanks to the pollination services provided by butterflies during their visits to flowers to drink nectar. More caterpillars mean more butterflies and more birds and bats and predatory insects like praying mantises that visit to feed on caterpillars and butterflies and other insects (you can also entice more birds to visit your garden by installing bird feeders, water baths or simply fruiting trees).

Perhaps some of these birds and bats will drop seeds of other plants — like the ficus and Singapore cherry that definitely sprouted from bird or bat poop in the garden. Before you know it, your garden will be a happening, buzzing, beating heart of life.

Some days, the garden brings high drama, like this praying mantis consuming a common emigrant butterfly in our garden. 
Photo: Anisha Jayadevan

Some days, the garden brings high drama, like this praying mantis consuming a common emigrant butterfly in our garden. Photo: Anisha Jayadevan

To be honest, I fumed a little at the rodents which chewed through the roots of the lovely Erythrina tree in our garden. I had found so many insects like the tortoiseshell beetle and the long-legged fly on its leaves. My father has been having an ongoing war with them over the death of many plants that they chewed the roots of.  But I would have liked to find out if we had shrews or long-tailed mice in our garden before he declared a war on all four-legged burrowing creatures. Shrews in particular, are friends of the gardener as they are insectivorous.

I deem it best not to broach the subject of rodents. Yet. For now, I have something else on the agenda for my father’s garden: more weeds.

This story, of course, is not just about my father, or our garden. It is part of a larger problem where habitat change, unprecedented urbanisation, plantations of monoculture, and pesticide use is leading to global declines of insects and other urban wildlife. Our cities are becoming barren, paved surfaces devoid of any nature. In India unfortunately, there have been no systematic studies to document insect populations, although scientists agree that insect numbers are plummeting. Yet, we depend on many insects, such as bees and butterflies for our food security.

If not for our wellbeing, if not for the sake of the insects and the birds and the bees that need only a small patch of garden for their homes, if not for a sense of benevolence or pride in supporting life — not just the ornamental lawn and flowers — in your garden, then maybe, just maybe, the chance to be caught by surprise and awe by a new visitor is all we need to be champions of critters in our garden?

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

-Joni Mitchell

Anisha Jayadevan
Anisha Jayadevan

is an ecologist studying animal movement. She tries to get more people interested in ecology by writing and co-organising a series of public ecology talks. She posts as @anishafishtoe

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