A great big lovable caterpillar (2015.12.07 [Mon.])

 

  This time I’ll be writing about caterpillars and larvae, so let this be a warning to readers with an aversion to our squishier, wrigglier cousins....

  There’s no disguising that the main reason a slothful character such as myself got into growing plants was to attract insects. Potted tangerine or pricklash trees are perfect attractions for swallowtails, and as you can see (Fig.) the experiment has been a roaring success. Gardenia have been equally good for drawing the pellucid hawk moth, Cephonodes hylas, to deposit its eggs. But I can’t disguise that my true goal has been the majestic larva of the lovely sphingid, Acherontia lachesis, among the largest caterpillars seen in Kobe. I have planted madly—aubergine, tomato, morning glory—in the hopes to watch one pupate and emerge into winged splendor. I don’t exaggerate in saying my hospitality campaign has been on a par with the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics.

  But to no avail! Morning glory season arrived in July and ended the next month without a single egg in sight. Perhaps my balcony is too small an enclosure? No, I refuse to believe that. I hear of A. lachesis sightings in the neighborhood every year. They must be around!

  Maybe then my timing is wrong? I had to hope it wasn’t that, because soon even if they make a cocoon, winter would be on its way. I became so obsessed with when I would finally receive a visit that I began to see them in my dreams. And then, on the morning of September 1, I found a nibbled eggplant leaf and on closer inspection found the telltale droppings of my elusive quarry. I looked closer still and...

  At last! Sporting the characteristic black protruberances from their tails, a clutch of young sphingid larvae and three mature caterpillars hanging from morning glory and eggplant leaves (Fig.). I had been paid a visit no less than twice. From then I made a morning ritual of going to the balcony to look for frass, and, with an almost unhealthy interest, monitor the growth of these beauties.

  But my time in paradise was all too short. I, that is one of my caterpillars, came under vicious attack by the social wasp, Vespula flaviceps, leaving only a mangled corpse (Fig.) in its wake. 

  As I recovered from the shock, I saw that the wasp had returned to stalk beneath the morning glory leaves. My garden had become a hunting ground! There is little that can be done about that, I suppose. After all, for all insects, autumn is the time for fattening up before winter, whether it be caterpillars munching on leaves or wasps munching on caterpillars. Indeed, these parasitic wasps need to lay their eggs in larvae in order to reproduce. Come to think of it, I had seen some intriguingly shaped wasps just the week before. It seems my balcony has become a functioning part of the Kitano ecosystem. How wonderful! But how could I celebrate at a time like this? What of my caterpillars? Small they may be, but nonetheless tempting fare for wasps.

  But I had not been caught unprepared. I retrieved a plastic insect cage and carpeted it with sphagnum and small stones—everything a pupating larva could want—added water, and placed bottled eggplant and morning glory plants inside to create a perfect haven.

  The subterranean larvae and pupae of V. flaviceps have long served as a staple protein source, in a dish called hachi no ko meshi or hebo in the vernacular, in mountainous parts of the country. My botanist friend, H, tells me they’re particularly delicious boiled in soy sauce and sugar (I think perhaps with a dash of ginger). People find the underground nests by capturing a wasp, tagging it with a length of string, and following it back to its home. The adults can be driven off or paralyzed by smoke, making it possible to cart off the whole nest intact.

  So now I have a plan for protecting my precious larvae in a Kobe thronging with wasps. A picnic-style hunting excursion capped off with a hebo feast. What’s not to like?