A young hairy caterpillar eats a petal from a black-eyed Susan flower.

Petal Puzzle

Uh-oh. There goes another petal.

The foliage feasters are out in force these days. I don’t begrudge the insects’ leafy meals. But their bloom banquets are another story.

Here’s a sampling of what I see in my flower bed.

The black-eyed Susans must be mighty tasty. Every single petal has been plucked from that little flower on the left.

My Shasta daisies are under siege, too.

I want to know who’s pigging out on my petals, so I’m spending lots of time in the flower patch, watching to see who shows up.

My suspect list includes earwigs. They’re nighttime feeders I often discover hiding between petals during the day. They’re usually garden friends that eat harmful insects, but they nosh on blooms, too.

My inspections have also revealed leafhoppers, Japanese beetles, and a variety of other petal piercers and chewers. But I’ll bet you can guess which very hungry creatures are my prime insects of interest.

They would be the caterpillars.

This hairy cat is in its young, nymph stage. Assuming it eats its fill of my (presumably) nourishing black-eyed Susans, it will become a giant leopard moth.

I’m also seeing lots of pug moth caterpillars. These tiny creatures are big eaters.

I managed to film a close-up of one young caterpillar chewing away. I think it’s an early-instar pug moth, although it hasn’t yet developed that caterpillar’s classic chevrons, so I’m not positive. The fun part? Watch carefully and you’ll see swallowed orange bites enter the caterpillar’s almost see-through thorax.

I don’t know about you, but I find all these insects to be beautiful in their own way. The flower damage is real, but I’m more fascinated than furious. So fascinated, I might just write a picture book based on what I’m finding in my flowers. Do you think inquisitive kids would enjoy a garden-gobbler whodunnit?

Resources and Related Kids Books

Purdue University’s extension website has a detailed and quite helpful article about identifying flower garden pests.

If you’d like to see the giant leopard moth (it’s quite beautiful!), take a look at this photo by Jeremy Johnson.

Here’s a nice article about the common pug moth.

Kids’ Books

For the youngest kids, one book is Eric Carle’s classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, available pretty much everywhere books are sold, and in libraries. The book is a fun read, but its depiction of what caterpillars eat is pretty far from reality, and there’s a more serious error. The book shows a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, but butterflies instead come out of chrysalises. Moths emerge from silk cocoons. An article by the Monarch Joint Venture explains the difference between the two.

A terrific introduction to caterpillars and their life cycle is Caterpillar and Bean by Martin Jenkins, art by Hannah Tolson.

This picture book about a bean plant and a caterpillar shows how plants and insects interact. A seed becomes a plant. An egg laid on the plant’s leaf hatches and becomes a caterpillar. We see the caterpillar eating leaves as it grows. Then it forms a chrysalis. By the end of the story, both the plant and the caterpillar come full circle in this fun, scientifically accurate, and beautifully illustrated book. Here’s a link.

Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

8 thoughts on “Petal Puzzle”

  1. Oh, yeah! I love a good cozy mystery, and what could be cozier than hiding out among the flower petals? Go for it!

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