Every few years the north state endures an abundance of caterpillars, especially around oak trees. Today I finally looked up their name: Malacosoma californicum, commonly known as the tent caterpillar.
Here in the country, I don’t mind snakes. And I’m intrigued by mountain lions, coyotes and even bear.
But these fuzzy caterpillars are driving me crazy.
Thousands of these creatures now swarm our property, driveway, trees, house and Bruce’s shop. I’ve learned to not touch anything without looking first, lest I squish some wiggly thing.
In fact, so many tent caterpillars are simultaneously chomping away on our oaks that sometimes, when I stand very still, I can actually hear falling frass, which sounds a bit like softly falling rain.
That’s another word I learned today: frass, commonly known as insect poop.
These blasted caterpillars and cocoons have no boundaries. Some even crept into our house and garage.
But the most dramatic show of all appeared on Bruce’s truck tires, which hadn’t moved in a few weeks (gas prices being what they are).
See for yourself. Come on, admit it. Disgusting. It gets worse (hard to believe, I know.) When Bruce took his truck to town today hordes of caterpillars remained stuck to the tires, waving goodbye as Bruce drove away. When he returned a few hours later, almost all the caterpillars were gone (except the survivors nestled deepest into the tread).
Meanwhile, thick clumps of cocoons line the underside of everything: eaves, porch steps, railings, my garden cart, along our rock pillars, even curled up inside peppermint leaves.
More mint with your tea?
I’ve tried blasting great masses of the cocoons with a jet stream of water, which mostly doesn’t budge them. How could this be? Didn’t miners use water to carve hillsides?
My very worst caterpillar encounter happened a few weeks ago during a cooking class for teenagers. I’d gone outside to cut herbs. After I returned to the house I kept feeling something tickle the center of my back. I finally reached around and smacked the spot that felt weird. Splat.
I don’t care that I’ve read about tent caterpillars not biting. They chomp through oak leaves. And this one bit me. I felt a sting. A dead caterpillar dropped to the floor. (My back had a sore welt for a week.)
“Ooh, you have blood all over the back of your shirt!” one girl said.
Gross-o-rama. The smashed caterpillar stain – a sort of light Fudgesicle hue – never did wash out, even with spot remover.
I think back to a few months ago when I first noticed a flurry of dusty-brown moths around our porch lights each night. Come morning they’d be stuck to exterior walls, wings folded quietly.
Not hurting a soul. So I thought.
At the time, little did I realize that each little moth would eventually lay hundreds of eggs that would later hatch into Western tent caterpillars, which would poop so loudly that you could actually hear it hit the ground. And they’d strip leaves from trees. And maybe one would even drop down my shirt.
They’d form cocoons, emerge as moths, lay eggs and start the whole maddening cycle all over again.
I should have dealt with the moths then, when I had the chance.