“Who’s That Knocking by My Door?”

Submitted by Art & Barb Straub.

“So, what’s with this fuzz ball?” asked brother Don (Jane) who keeps a roof over our heads and houses Frances the Ford Focus so that she maintains her gleaming blue. Holding a leaf out, he proffered a white wooly bear caterpillar, but it was not a wooly bear. Just a bit larger than a wooly bear, the critter was moving and grooving nervously as it eye-balled the size of its captor versus its two-inch length. Placing the captive on one’s arm, a bit of a sting could be experienced as it measured its chances for escape. White as a newborn lamb, the captive had eight black spikes emanating through its fuzz. We were to learn later that these ebony appendages gave the beastie its name, Dagger Moth larva. Yes, right on the doorstep of the cozy home, perhaps intent on entering in, was the caterpillar just a-shuffling along.

Hustling to the faithful computer, we discovered a plethora of information on this caterpillar. (We also found that it is estimated that there are 683 kinds of insects in Minnesota, and that we could spend our remaining days on this part of the planet tracking them down…just in the back yard and surrounding environs.) Dial up “Insect Identification for the Casual Observer” and one becomes overwhelmed, but challenged to identify them all. We teach our Nature Neighbors youngsters to ‘peep but don’t pick’ when dealing with unknown insects. This is especially important when dealing with spiders, bees/wasps (heh!) caterpillars and many others. In the case of the ‘dagger guy,’ those innocent black spikes often have toxins stored in them that will cause a rash on tender skin, maybe even a quick trip to the emergency ward of the nearest health facility.

Brother Don’s pet ‘dagger guy’ unveiled himself under a maple tree…favorite ‘dagger’ food. We were puzzled when researching the buglet that the caterpillars come in white, yellow, brown and even black! No WONDER one can be puzzled. In addition to being at risk for children, should a pet ingest the cute little buddie, a trip to the vet may be in order! Yes, nature is beautiful, but ‘peep before you leap!’

At this stage of the game, every Indy reader is familiar with the leaves and pods of milkweed, food of the monarch butterfly, which we now experience growing proudly, yes proudly, outside many a door in the Henderson/LeSueur area. But, have you ever noticed the pod of butterfly weed, that beautiful orange flower which attracts butterflies and other pollinators? Perhaps it’s because of its beauty, the pod has gone unnoticed by these two nature nuts; but partner in crime, Barbara, captured a photo for you this week. Some few of our readers will remember the days during World War II when we gathered milkweed pods for the ‘war effort.’ We were told that the fine fibrous cottony material surrounding the seeds would be used for stuffing in life jackets, the material for which was in short supply just as was rope from marijuana…which farmers were encouraged-then discouraged to grow and harvest. Don’t you wonder if that kapok ever made it to the life jacket efforts?

How many have noticed the extraordinarily white bush growing in the front yard of the Plieseis residence, Barbara and Bob, on Main Street, Henderson? Surely hundreds of Sauerkraut Days and weekly auto-rollin visitors brush against the incredible piece of nature’s art on that family’s doorstep. When the sun is shining on the fragrant natural gift, the bush is veritably crawling with insects; wee bumble bees, black and paper wasps and others. Note the blinding white of the hydrangea, for that is what the bush is, but also the apple blossom delicate pink as the plant ages; a sight shared by the Pleiseis’s for passers-by to espy if one has but a moment. One of the largest and most prominent wasps on the hydrangea is the great black wasp. Many were busy pollinating the day we visited, and, in spite of their size (largest of the black wasps) they are not aggressive! That is, the female can sting, but only if provoked. (Some people are like that, peaceful until provoked that is.) The black wasps snatch insects off the hydrangeas, and carry them off to their nests, and, believe it or not, they dig their nests underground. A reason they are relatively tame is that they are solitary wasps, that is, they don’t have a large family to defend in the nest.

A fourth plant at your doorstep, around the corner or in the garden is the controversial Echinacea, a kind of coneflower of which there are eight species. The plant is like some people who light up their corner of the world, just as echinacea provides color to yards, flower gardens and along streets, roads and in prairies. Extracts from the plant come in pills, liquid form, sprays, you name it. Some believe strongly that it reduces the symptoms of colds, but the side effects can be annoying to say the least. Always consult your physician before using. Its addition to the decor of your yard benefits the whole block!

This week, share what you find at your doorstep that may have been there for years without being noticed. However, please don’t squish the dagger larva, they have their place in the environment as do we all.