If you walked onto your back porch at dusk and were swarmed with butterflies, you’d probably smile and say, “How magical.” If a ladybug crawled across your steering wheel, you might take its picture and post a blog about it.
Swap out the butterflies and ladybugs for moths and beetles, though, and your response would be more like:
“Aaah! Aaah! Get it off me! Get it off me!”
When I was a little girl, I found a fuzzy little caterpillar. I held it in my hand and thought it was so cute. Because I’d been brainwashed in school to think that fuzzy little caterpillars grow up to be beautiful butterflies, I kept the caterpillar inside a jar with holes poked into the lid. I watched my pet caterpillar wrap itself in a cocoon and eagerly awaited its metamorphosis into beautiful butterfly.
So, yeah, I felt a little duped when a crappy little moth emerged.
We have a tent caterpillar situation in western Washington. I find the caterpillars themselves harmless enough, even when they congregate en masse on my chain link fence, or if one crawls across my foot while I’m reading on my patio. I’m not attached enough to my shrubs to care when they perforate all the leaves.
But last year, on a warm summer night, I left the back door open for the dogs to come in and out. The kitchen light was on, and after the sun set, I discovered dozens of moths slamming themselves against the light fixture like the undead.
This year, the tent caterpillar population has been an infestation of biblical proportions. I am not even exaggerating. I shudder to imagine the swarms of moths that will beat themselves against my sliding glass door this summer. How am I supposed to leave the door open for the dogs? We don’t even have a screen door because the dogs barreled through it.
The Internet prescribes various methods of deterring and poisoning caterpillars, but my soul is too sensitive to blast them with chemicals. A popular suggestion was to cut off the branches housing the tents where the caterpillar snuggle at night. We attempted that, but some of the tents are in trees too high to reach. And I can’t exactly cut off the post of my chain link fence.
Cocoons popped up on the dog run. I tried spraying these with vinegar — and then hornet spray — to kill them while they slept. To my horror, I could see the pupae writhing inside the cocoons. My sense of self deteriorated. I’m a murderer!
I decided the most humane thing would be to drown them. Wearing gloves, I started plucking the oblong dusty white cocoons from the chain link, and the side of my house, and the gutters, and the bases of our outdoor punching bags, and then dropping them into a bucket of soapy water.
Last week, I looked up to see a cluster — what do you call it in a sci-fi movie when they discover where the aliens are growing babies in jars, and there’s just thousands of them? That’s what it felt like — tucked into the leaves of my California myrtle. I grabbed garden shears and started hacking and yanking off branches and leaves, thinking, “I’m going to need a bigger bucket.”
I got really good at spotting cocoons in the leaves. I could tell by the way a leaf folded over that a caterpillar had tucked itself in there nice and tight. Every day after work, I dumped yesterday’s bucket and filled it up anew with cocoons and leaves, and if I saw a caterpillar working its way up a leaf, I flicked it in the bucket too. The other day, I swiped the whole collection of caterpillars sunning themselves on the post of our fence.
My murderous rampages became obsessive. I found the killing to be … satisfying.
No way to get them all — I can’t reach the cocoons on the eaves of the house — but when the moths come, I’ll know that there are fewer because of me.
Last night when we came home, my entire worldview shifted when I saw a lovely green moth by the front door.
“Is that what I’ve been killing?” I asked. “I wouldn’t mind seeing swarms of those. I thought I was killing those ugly brown moths.”
And that’s when I realized that I am racist.
Though it turns out, the emerald moths are NOT what I’ve been killing. They are from the family Geometridae, and their larvae are inch worms.