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Expanding Horizons

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By Gwen Nash 

Master Gardener℠ volunteer in Chatham County

My first memories of gardening was with my dad when I was about 4 years old. Back then it was mostly about vegetable gardening and no matter where we lived he always had a small patch of garden. I was drawn then to the bright colors and my friend Denny and I thought it was all kinds of fun to go into the neighbor’s yard and ‘tosh tomatoes’. Needless to say, it was not so much fun for my dad when the neighbor caught us.

When I was five we bought a new home and my dad set about landscaping it while I was right by his side. He had an eye for what would look pretty good and I fell in love with the beauty of what a little nature could do to improve the harsh square corners of wood, brick, and mortar structures. That lasts even today as I drive around and enjoy the landscaping around old or new structures, fancy or plain. A big beautiful house with no plants around it can look somehow incomplete even next to a small plain house with lovingly placed flower beds and trees around it, which is complete.

I’ve had several new homes where I was responsible for the landscape. Not always ‘picture perfect’ but oh how I tried. I had some successes and a lot of failures, but I always strove for beauty. My last effort came to a screeching halt when my health began to go downhill. I had to sell my home and move into an apartment and thus ended that stage of gardening. I still garden but now only in containers and that is a whole new learning curve to conquer.

This year I had over 30 containers on my front porch and driveway and I loved every one of them, I tried some new pairings and partners in some of them, some on purpose and some were surprises. But container gardening has expanded my interest in some other outdoor friends. I have been an avid hummingbird watcher and even named this year’s collection. They are great fun. I had some very friendly toads, some damsel flies, some very friendly bees and wasps, a few but not nearly enough butterflies, and some very aggressive birds along with a few beautiful but shy birds.

Then on September 7, as I was sitting on my front porch, I spotted a pure white moth on my very dark purple elephant ear leaf.

White moth

Spilosoma virginica adult (G. Nash)

As I looked closer I saw the eggs and realized that the moth was laying these eggs as I watched. I was intrigued. I had never witnessed this before so out came my camera to document this new event. Then I went on a bug search for ‘white moth’ and after looking at several sites, one of them being BugGuide.net (Iowa State University Department of Entomology), I identified this as the Virginia Tiger Moth/ Yellow Bear (Spilosoma virginica) and the caterpillar (larval) stage is the Yellow Woolly Bear!!!! I was excited because I have watched for these guys all my life. So I did a camera expose on them.

Moth eggs

Spilosoma virginica Eggs (G. Nash)

Of course mom left after she laid her eggs so all I got for the next few days were pictures of the eggs. The eggs were unchanged for five days until they began hatching larvae.

Moth larvae

First instar Spilosoma virginica larvae (G. Nash)

I was a woolly bear foster mother! But by day six, disappointment:  all that was left was frass.

Leaf

The kids moved out (G. Nash)

But with wildlife, as always, we move on. Time is not the same in their world as ours. But on October 15, I get a call from my daughter, who lives 14 miles from me, and something is eating up her Angel Trumpet plant and she wants to know if I can identify these creatures. First, she describes them and I think she is describing woolly bears. Then she texts me pictures. Oh my gosh, this clearly is the same species of Virginia Tiger Moth as I had seen lay eggs, hatch, and crawl away!

Spilosoma virginica

Spilosoma virginica (M. Cochran)

So I asked her to send me some more pictures of the caterpillars and some of their feeding damage.

An eaten leaf

Delicious! (M. Cochran)

She tried to count how many she had on and around her Angel Trumpet but when she got past 30 she got mixed up because they were squirming and crawling around and she couldn’t keep track.

Caterpillar

Exploring (M. Cochran)

Woolly Bear Caterpillar

(M. Cochran)

At this point we were enjoying this so much that I decided to write about this adventure we went on together, expanding our horizons. She shared one more set of pictures. She said the last picture was the best one and that the caterpillar was posing and smiling at her. Yep, she’s crazy just like me!

Caterpillar on leaf

Smile! (M. Cochran)