Tufted caterpillars

Vapourer moth (Orygia antiqua) caterpillar on strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo)

I spotted this stunning caterpillar munching away on the strawberry tree that I planted last winter. When I looked it up I found that it is, I think, a vapourer moth caterpillar. Everything I read suggested that these caterpillars feed on deciduous trees, especially fruit trees. So I thought that it must have fallen down from one of the neighbouring trees. But looking more closely, I noticed three of its shed skins on the undersides of the strawberry tree’s leaves. So it would seem it has completed its caterpillar life stage here, quite happily eating the strawberry tree’s evergreen leaves. In total, this one caterpillar has eaten less than one leaf. I read that they are “no longer a significant pest in orchards because of the use of insecticides”…

I also spotted another tufted caterpillar on a snowy mespilus shrub (Amelanchier lamarckii). It’s not as impressive as the vapourer, but still quite striking. It too is a moth caterpillar, this time of the grey dagger (Acronicta psi).

Caterpillar of grey dagger moth on snow mespilus

It always puzzles me that many people say they like butterflies; but they think moths are somehow less nice; and caterpillars are purely pests.



Buff tips on strawberries

Riffling through the strawberry leaves for ripe berries yesterday morning, I almost brushed what I took to be a twig off the leaves without a thought. But then I realised (I twigged…) that it wasn’t a twig it was a moth. And in fact it wasn’t one but two.

Buff tip moths on a strawberry leaf – at a glance, they look like a snapped twig


These are buff tip moths (Phalera bucephala). Their caterpillars are voracious eaters with unfussy tastes. I suppose they could be called a pest, but their camouflage is undeniably impressive and cunning. So I left them.


Carpet beetles, woolly bears and garden tigers

At this time of year, you often see little beetles like this one, on your windowsills.

Carpet beetle - Anthrenus verbasci
Carpet beetle – Anthrenus verbasci

This is a carpet beetle (Anthrenus verbasci). They are about 3mm long and they’re usually quite dopey and easy to catch.  These beetles themselves do no damage: they feed on pollen. However, their larvae feed on natural fibres, including carpets, hence the name. They’ll also feed on any other natural materials, like your clothes, rugs, bedding, etc.

carpetbeetle 003

When you find a beetle, it could have come in from outside (e.g. through an open window, or quite often, on your laundry if it’s dried on the line), or it may have been living its larval life somewhere nearby. The best thing to do is to put the beetles outside again to try and stop it laying eggs in your house.

To try and avoid problems with the larvae in your house, make sure you vacuum thoroughly around the edges of your rooms, under your beds and on the stairs. Also, every now and then, shake out all your clothes and bedding etc. especially things that are kept in the airing cupboard.

Confusingly, the carpet beetle larvae are called woolly bears. That is also a common name for the caterpillar of the garden tiger moth (Arctia caja). The larvae of carpet beetles are small, only growing to about 7mm at most. They’re fairly inconspicuous, and if you do find one, they look a little like a hairy maggot:)

By contrast, the caterpillar of the garden tiger moth grows to around 7cm long – 10 times as big as the carpet beetle larvae. It is a lovely chocolatey colour on top, with ginger sides and long white hairs standing tall along its back. It has nothing to do with carpet beetles!

A garden tiger moth caterpillar (Arctia caja). Frequently called a woolly bear.
A garden tiger moth caterpillar (Arctia caja). Frequently called a woolly bear.

Golden micro moths

There are more than 1500 species of micro moth in the UK. But it’s quite possible you’ve never noticed them as, like the name suggests, they’re small. These are Micropterix calthella, sometimes called the marsh marigold moth.  Their larvae feed on dead and dying plant material. The adults feed on pollen.

Golden micro moths, Micropterix calthella, feeding on the pollen of a buttercup
Golden micro moths, Micropterix calthella, feeding on the pollen of a buttercup
These moths are swarming over a click beetle.
These moths are swarming over a click beetle.

Caterpillar on red currants

The flowers on the red currants are just opening and I spotted this caterpillar in amongst them.

Caterpillar on red currant
Caterpillar on red currant

Resisting an initial urge to pick it off and squish it, I picked it off and tried to identify it. Conveniently (or it could be misleadingly) it adopted the classical “looper” pose, which pointed me towards the looper or geometer type moths.

Caterpillar from red currant
Caterpillar from red currant

My best guess is that it may be a magpie moth caterpillar – Abraxas grossulariata. That’s a beautiful moth and I don’t see them often, so I put the caterpillar back on the currant bush 🙂

A more troublesome caterpillar-like pest on currants and gooseberries are the larvae of the gooseberry sawfly (Nematus ribesii). These look very like caterpillars, but they have more of the chubby prolegs (the stumpy legs in the middle of the body) than butterfly or moth caterpillars do. They also tend to feed in groups and they are voracious: they can strip a bush of leaves more or less overnight.

UPDATE: 30th June 2013

The caterpillar has stayed on the same bush and I see it from time to time, getting plumper. It is eating the leaves a little, but only a little: it’s not a problem.

Magpie moth caterpillar - showing segments, legs and prolegs.
Magpie moth caterpillar – showing segments, legs and prolegs.

This picture clearly shows that it was indeed a geometer moth caterpillar: it just has the one pair of prolegs on segment 9, plus the claspers on its rear.

Happily, I don’t have any sawfly larvae to show, but if I did, they would (probably) have stubby prolegs all the way from segment 5 to segment 10. (I say probably, because there are lots of different sawflies and lots of different proleg configurations.)

Most caterpillars also have more pro-legs than this one, but most often they have four pairs, sometimes five, and they don’t usually have any on segment five.

If you are considering using chemical controls, it is important to know whether you’re dealing with “caterpillars” (the larvae of butterflies and moths) or sawfly larvae, as not all products work equally well on both. For example, Bacillus thuringiensis won’t work on sawfly larvae.