Caterpillars and Moths Indoors! Oh, My!

It all started several weeks ago as I was walking my son home from school and we came across a caterpillar crossing the sidewalk. 

“Look, Mom,” Snags said, as he pointed at the caterpillar.  “I wish I could keep it.”

I thought about it for a minute.  What’s the harm, I thought.  “You can,” I told him.

Snags was surprised.  “I can? I can keep him?  Really?”

“Sure” I said. “But I’m not picking him up.  If you want him, you pick him up.” 

Snags bent down and picked up the caterpillar, gently cupping him in his hands.  Two seconds later he shook his hands violently apart and threw the caterpillar to the ground.  The caterpillar must have moved in his hands. The caterpillar’s feet (are they even called feet?) felt weird, they tickled Snags hands, startling him into throwing the caterpillar down. Smack on the pavement.

But he picked him back up and tried again.  This time we managed to get all the way home, caterpillar still intact, if not a little stunned (and bruised?) by hitting the pavement a few moments earlier.  I found an empty bean dip jar and washed it out then poked holes in the jar lid with a screw driver.  Snags picked leaves from the cherry tree in our yard and put them in the jar along with the caterpillar, giving him an instant home. 

Snags named the caterpillar Rex. Rex Racer. Named after Speed Racer’s brother.  Because… caterpillars are fast?

My husband, who thought keeping a bug in the house on purpose was nasty, was about to get even more disgusted the next day.  For that is when Snags found more caterpillars, this time in our yard, on our cherry tree.

Snags was excited as he emptied out a green plastic bin from his old train table and started collecting caterpillars in it.  The sides of the bin were high enough that the caterpillars had trouble crawling out.  The plastic was smooth, so there was nothing to grip to boost them along.  He collected a bunch of caterpillars and he shared them with one of the little kids across the street.  After Snags collected another seven caterpillars to keep for himself, I made him stop.

I agreed that we could put the caterpillars, Rex included, into one of our empty aquariums.  We took an old mesh hamper and cut it apart to make a mesh top that would let in air for the caterpillars.  We put in plenty of cherry tree leaves, a couple of branches wrapped in a wet paper towel, and the caterpillars, and set the whole thing on the dresser in Snags’ room.

Every morning we added fresh leaves to the aquarium and watched as the caterpillars happily munched their way through the leaves. A living version of Eric Carle’s book . Every evening we would check to see if any of the caterpillars had made a cocoon.  For a week or two nothing happened.  Then one night I found one of the caterpillars inside a curled up leaf, with white, silky, thread like pieces starting to form around him.  By morning, it was a full cocoon.  Within a week all the caterpillars had formed cocoons, save one.

We stopped adding fresh leaves to the aquarium and we left it alone.  I wondered how long we had to keep the thing.  I looked up caterpillars online and learned that we had captured Eastern Tent Caterpillars, which turn into moths.  And I read that the moths, if they were to emerge at all, would come out of the cocoons in about three weeks.  When you got too close to the aquarium you could smell the leaves, and something else, something…off.  Maybe it was the caterpillar poop at the bottom of the aquarium.  Since I didn’t want to disturb the cocoons, I left everything alone.

Then, a couple of nights ago I walked in Snags room to check the aquarium.  Something was different.  Something was new.  Something, that looked like a furry teeny tiny bat was sitting on a branch.  It was a moth!  Snags just knew that it was Rex.

Did you know that moths have fur, or what looks like it anyway, on their heads?  I didn’t.  I guess I’d never really seen one up close at all.  I’d seem them hanging around my porch light outside at night, like teenagers outside a 7-11, but I’d never actually SEEN one, not like this.  I thought it was kind of cute.  My husband thought it was disgusting.

In the morning, Snags decided that we should let the moth go free. So we carefully carried the aquarium down the stairs and out onto the front porch.  We opened the lid of the aquarium, but the moth was holding fast.  I took a bunch of pictures with my camera and was pleased to find that if moths have eyes, they are so tiny that the flash of the camera doesn’t leave them with red eye in their photos.  Eventually I prodded the moth off the mesh lid of the aquarium and took some photos of him (or was it a her?) on a leaf.  He/she/it did not like that.  Rex the moth flapped its tiny little wings rapidly and stuck out these pointy things on the top of its head, all defensive, like it was trying to scare me away.  Moth, I thought, I could crush you with my thumb.  Give it up.  You don’t scare me.  But Snags and I must have scared the moth.  It flew off.  It flew up, up, up, where it landed, I kid you not, on Snags’ window screen.  As if we would open the window and let him fly back in. And although the moth stayed there on the screen for hours, we held firm.  We did not open the window to let it back in. You can’t go home again.  Not if you’re a moth who hatched from a cocoon in an old aqaurium in MY house.

Days have gone by and the moth has moved on.  It’s not hanging on Snags’ window screen.  And just this morning, a second moth has emerged from one of the many remaining cocoons.  Right now this new moth is playing dead.  I assume that is another defensive move.  If I go up and open the aquarium lid to try to take a picture of it I bet it will fly out of the aquarium right into my face.  So I’m going to leave it alone for a while, wait and see how many more moths emerge.  And when they do, we’ll set them free.

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6 Comments

Filed under caterpillars, life, moths, parenting, Rex Racer, Snags

6 responses to “Caterpillars and Moths Indoors! Oh, My!

  1. Oh, Belle…you’re braver than I. With 3 kids of my own, we have our share of bugs as pets….just today my girls were collecting ants! But moths/caterpillars/butterflies/cocoons….I refuse to let them collect those….they are the CREEPIEST things I’ve ever seen, well second to those locust thingies that come out every 17 years or something….I’d rather have a spider!

  2. woo hoo…how exciting for you and Snags. I am loving it. 🙂 I can’t wait to have our own pet Moths in the making one day. 🙂

  3. This is just so educational! Snags will remember the caterpillar/moth thing for ever. My mother worked in the school biology department, and she had to look after the locust cage during the summer break. They smelled funny too, but we actually watched them shedding their skin.

  4. That is brilliant. And so cool that Snags wanted to set the moth free. I loved that Eric Carle book as a kid. I bet snags loved seeing it happen before his eyes. Fab.

  5. Snags's Dad

    Hmmm. Uhh. Wirestorm (i.e, ‘your cousin’), Snags told me about an hour-&-a-half ago that he wanted to hunt for frogs or tadpoles or ANTS!!! I said, “Absolutely no ants. Not in the house. You’re *NOT* collecting ants.” Then he proceeded to tell me that I should watch for any frogs while I was cutting the lawn. I did see one that jumped through the fence as I got closer, but there was no way I could catch it. =)

  6. WileE2005

    Rex is an Eastern Tent Caterpillar! I’ve seen those around here before. But lately in terms of caterpillars I’ve been mainly seeing those, Forest Tent caterpillars, winter moths (inchworms) and gypsy moths. I sometimes see the first three as adults, but as far as adult lepidotera goes I mainly see Cabbage White butterflies and Gypsy moths. However in the summer of 2000 I raised five Painted Lady caterpillars, and it was pretty neat. Only two of them successfully became butterflies, but it was incredible just the same.

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