My kids love learning about nature. New and interesting bugs, plants, and all things dirt. “Look, a butterfly!” is a frequent comment, abbreviated to “buh’fly!” from the Destroyer. So when I found these caterpillars on our tomato plants there was rejoicing all around. We found two: one smaller one already covered by these rice looking pellets, and one fat, happy, squashy enormous one. Between them they had already demolished a good section of tomato plants, which was a great reason to capture them in critter carriers. I figured we would watch the life cycle go through and then I would silently obliterate them one night when the kids didn’t know what I was doing.
You see, these are Hornworm caterpillars, larvae of the Sphinx moth. They are a serious pest for farmers and can demolish whole swaths of plants and fruits. Luckily, there’s a solution to the problem. Braconid wasps. These fascinating insects lay eggs inside the caterpillar. The eggs do what eggs are supposed to do – hatch, and the larva are hungry. When the larvae are ready to pupate, they pop out of the caterpillar and make a little cocoon. What you see here are cocoons, not eggs.
So when the Engineer came downstairs this morning and went to view his caterpillars, he was grossed out and upset that one of the “eggs” was moving. The fat, happy caterpillar was no longer happy. The larvae had picked now, right after we found the caterpillars, to emerge and make their cocoons. End of caterpillar.
So now we’re observing the life cycle of braconid wasps. Once they hatch we’ll release them to go in search of other hornworm caterpillars.
A lot of people say they love nature. What they really mean is that they love the beautiful, cute, cuddly side of nature. No one wants to watch that cute furry bunny get eaten by a coyote. No one thinks that maggots are cute. And no one would ever say that an insect that eats its host from the inside out was cute or pretty. Sometimes nature shows its nasty side.
Even my husband asked if there was anything I could do to help the caterpillar. I shrugged – at this point, there’s no helping it. It was eaten alive and now the parasite is emerging from its host. Sounds like a horror film, right? But that’s nature.
Nature is cold and uncaring. Nature is harsh. Nature is efficient and methodical. Nature can be beautiful, but nature can be brutally ugly too. I want my kids to learn about butterflies and ladybugs, those cute insects that kids love to see. I also want them to learn about spiders and snakes, and parasites in the water. Because nature can kill you. It’s nothing personal, it’s just the way things are.
If these braconid wasps can spark a conversation about how nature is to be respected, I’m all for it. Perhaps that conversation will keep my kids from trying to do stupid things like pick up a venomous snake. Or try to pet a squirrel. Or go hug a bobcat. Nature has teeth and claws and spines, and it should be viewed from a safe distance. Because if you don’t, you might end up like this caterpillar.
There are some days that I think my kids regret our choice to homeschool. This just might be one of them.