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Caterpillars Are Coming!

By: Sandra Nelson

One of my favorite sights of summer is watching butterflies as they make their way through my gardens, stopping here and there to nibble at the nectar buffet in front of them. It can be absolutely mesmerizing., but there is so much more to enjoy. To add to my delight, in just a little while another, a different butterfly show will begin here in central Missouri. Butterfly eggs will begin to hatch and caterpillars will start munching away at my plants. 

butterfly laying eggs

On the surface, I know that a bed full of chewed off plants sounds like a gardener’s worst nightmare. In my early years of gardening, the sight of a caterpillar destroyed plant would have broken my heart. If I’m truthful, I have to admit that in my misguided youth I brutally killed more than one innocent caterpillar I found blissfully eating mycaterpillar parsley.  In my defense though, I didn’t realize I was doing anything wrong. At that time, I honestly didn’t know who I was killing. Now, I do.

Distinguishing between a garden’s good guys and its bad guys –  especially as it is voraciously consuming your plants  –  can be difficult. Twenty years ago, (okay, more like thirty) very few resources were easily available delineating beneficial versus harmful insects. The prevailing attitude about the role of insects in the garden was “spray a little diazinon or sevin and problem solved.” 

The good news is that attitudes about the use of pesticides seem to be changing. Gardeners are recognizing that indiscriminate use of toxins is damaging to our planet and that there are other, more earth-friendly options to control harmful pests. The not so great news is that it still isn’t always easy to identify the good guys when it comes to insects in the garden. Internet sources often seem to contradict one another and published materials can sometimes be hard to wade through when you need an instant answer.

books next to computer

With the Midwest caterpillar season coming soon, I thought that it might be helpful to publish an easy to navigate, downloadable and printable pdf of six of our most common butterflies and their caterpillars. I've also included a list of the host plants on which these caterpillars are often found.    ( click here  to view the pdf)

With any luck, in a few weeks my parsley will be nothing but sticks and a big, fat caterpillar will be the culprit. Instead of squashing him, I'll wish him luck.  After all, the world could use another butterfly.