Some Friends for the Big Green Guy

The Big Green Guy ~ photo by Steven Schwartzman

This little marvel munching away on a gaura leaf, clearly unwilling to interrupt his meal in order to tidy up for the camera, has been tentatively identified as the larva of a white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata): the same moth I featured recently on The Task at Hand.

The first time I saw the creature, I dissolved into giggles and immediately dubbed him the Big Green Guy. His vulnerable chubbiness, his tiny, multi-purpose feet, his air of concentration, his apparent lack of embarassment at being revealed as a messy eater: all evoked a response of absurd protectiveness.

Unable to help myself, I emailed his image to friends. Despite mixed reviews, everyone recognized it as a caterpillar, although some less sensitive souls deemed it ‘just’ a caterpillar. “Yes,” I said. “It is a caterpillar. But it’s not just any caterpillar. It’s an Alice in Wonderland, ‘Let me look you in the eye and ask you some questions’ caterpillar.”

Eventually, I purchased and hung a print of the creature on my wall. A neighbor said, “You might as well have mounted a collection of cockroaches.” I considered her judgment unnecessarily harsh, and said so. “To each her own,” she said.

Over the months, I began to wonder why I never had found a caterpillar. I saw monarchs being raised here and there, and occasionally a friend would find a chrysalis hanging from a lawn chair or a shrub, but caterpillars of any sort evaded me.

Then, in late October of this year, I noticed yellow tape along a roadside, attached somewhat casually to stakes. Suspecting that someone might have marked a milkweed patch, I stopped to explore. When I did, I not only found milkweed plants, I found a group of monarch larvae happily feeding: as plump and adorable as the Big Green Guy.

This one appeared to be sampling a stem.

A second was making short work of what seemed to be an especially tasty plant. At the time, I didn’t notice what appears to be an empty chrysalis nearby.

Focused on eating as much milkweed as they could, as quickly as possible, the group clearly wasn’t interested in posing, but they provided a wonderful hour’s entertainment.

In a recent post on his Learn Fun Facts blog, Edmark M. Law offered this quotation from Charles Dickens’s 1850 novel, David Copperfield:

Indifference to all the actions and passions of mankind was not supposed to be such a distinguished quality at that time, I think.
Yet I have known it very fashionable indeed. I have seen it displayed with such success that I have encountered some fine ladies and gentlemen who might as well have been born caterpillars.

Dickens might have sought a different analogy, had he met the Big Green Guy and his friends.

Comments always are welcome.


55 thoughts on “Some Friends for the Big Green Guy

  1. These are some giant close ups and if any a body loves the moth and the butterfly as we do then this is the perfect place for admiring. I have one of the large moths- not sure which one that lays its eggs in my Indian currant coralberry, each summer. In fact they all but decimate about three or four of the shrubs that came up on my property quite some time ago. I do have a few monarch cat pics as well but the pics are from my 70-200mm lens which I used back in 2014. I think you have ideal habitat for many nature photographs and I always look forward to seeing more.

    1. It’s been interesting to follow some gardeners and read their reports about caterpillar activity in their flowers. They can eat a plant nearly to the ground, but the plants will come right back and provide more forage later in the year. At least, that seems to be the case with native plants like milkweed. I suppose having hornworms show up in the tomatoes is a problem of a different sort.

      I certainly do have plenty of places to explore. Of course, even a ditch will do when it’s native plants and insects that are of interest. (And crawdads, of course!)

  2. Did not know they could be so hungry and big. Their jaws or claws look quite formidable. There are jaw ants whose pincers work so fast in snapping shut that it outdoes the bullet of a gun. Apparently this mechanism is now being studied by scientists in the hope that some day it will be used to make things run faster.
    They should then apply this innovation to Australian trains. They run so slowly one sees the same scene twice, even after a nap.

    1. Their apparent size is deceiving, thanks to the use of a macro lens. I think the Big Green Guy was a little smaller than the monarch caterpillars, which all were roughly the same size: about three inches.

      They’re not such fast eaters, though they can make a stem disappear fairly quickly. But they’re persistent. I didn’t see a single one push back from the table and say, “Whew. I’m starting to feel full. I think I’ll just rest a bit.” After all, their whole purpose in life at this stage is to eat and get fat. They certainly have the technique down.

  3. The big green guy is a hoot, and an excellent image by Steve, as are your Monarch caterpillar images. I’m OK at finding adult butterflies, but only fair at best at finding caterpillars. And that’s a shame, because there are many beautiful and curious moth caterpillars I’d love to photograph.

    1. Steve’s abilities with a camera really shine in this image, don’t they? As for the monarch caterpillars, they helped to make clear how difficult it can be to get decent photos of the tiny ones. Lie on the ground? No problem. Lie at an angle? Do-able. Try to capture a moving target from that position? Not so easy!

      I have noticed in the past that, once I find a flower that’s been eluding me, I often see it frequently. Perhaps next year I’ll have better luck with caterpillars.

  4. I don’t think that any other life forms have such dramatic and colorful and interesting differences between the young and adults than moths and caterpillars. These guys are adorable!

    1. It is amazing to see how they differ from stage to stage. I suppose that’s one reason the caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation has been so appealing to artists and story-tellers over the years. And I agree that ‘adorable’ fits. The first time I saw the Big Green Guy, I fell in love with him, and it’s been great fun to have his image hanging on the wall.

  5. Big Green Guy is well named and the photos are stunning. I love caterpillars. Their movements along a stem or leaf, as they munch, munch munch demonstrate such concentration and purpose. And, they’re really cute!

    1. I was surprised by how quickly they could consume a milkweed stem. It occurred to me while I was watching them that they were the very definition of goal-oriented; they never paused for a moment when I showed up and stuck my nose down into their world. And cute? You bet.

  6. Love the Big Green Guy and the images are fabulous.
    Not sure that I love caterpillars in my garden, but photos of those striped little gems really make me smile.

    1. The monarch caterpillars wouldn’t bother your garden at all, unless you’re raising milkweed. The Big Green Guy, on the other hand, might create a little havoc, depending on what you’re growing. They are cuter than I ever would have imagined, and it was great fun to find them in the wild.

  7. As I recall, with Monarch larvae one can tell fore from aft by the number of horns, which is to say that I believe that first photograph is, to put it delicately, a view astern. I must say, your protoMonarchs have a much snazzier wardrobe than the Big Green Guy. Kelly’s swamp denizens called them “caterpiggles.” I agree.

    1. Actually, they do have two tentacles on each end — except those in front are somewhat longer. In the case of this one, it’s the angle of the shot that’s hidden the other tentacle. In a couple of other photos of the same critter, it’s just barely visible. Trying to get photos while lying on the ground — and on an incline — meant I couldn’t always get a full frontal image.

      While I was trying to sort out the details of caterpillar anatomy, I learned that the legs in front, called true legs, differ from the false, or prolegs, in the back, and they can help determine which direction the thing’s headed, too. Monarch Watch has a good diagram here.

      ‘Caterpiggles’ is great. I agree that these have more striking outfits, but, of course, clothes don’t always make the caterpillar.

    1. When I begin to find milkweed next year, I’m certainly going to take a closer look. All of the butterflies flitting around came from somewhere, and that “somewhere” is out there crawling around on our plants. It’s quite interesting that different butterflies prefer different plants, so it’s not just the milkweed where caterpillars can be found.

    1. Though the line about being “monarch of all I survey” has been familiar to me for years, I’ve never known the source, nor read the entire poem. I laughed at the lines about Selkirk’s shock at the tameness of creatures unacquainted with man. The pigeons that consider my place their second home are fairly well acquainted with humans, but I was nonetheless shocked last week when I discovered one had walked in and perched on the arm of a living room chair. I invited it to leave, and was grateful that it left willingly.

      I was pleased to get both true legs and prolegs in focus in the last photo: a prologue, perhaps, to getting an entire caterpillar in focus.

  8. I couldn’t find it online, but I read about a project to develop off-road vehicles, including “rovers” to explore other planets, without using wheels. They looked at caterpillars, and compared them a tube of jelly doughnuts, compressing and expanding, and using a tremendous amount of energy. So probably not a good concept for a robotic vehicle, and the reason they view life as an unending all-you-can- eat buffet. These are great shots and I’m glad you found some monarchs happily munching and looking well-dressed and well-fed.

    1. When you mentioned vehicles designed to explore without using wheels, I suddenly remembered the Caterpillar heavy equipment company. I wondered if they had used caterpillars as inspiration for the company name, and indeed they did:

      “While the Caterpillar Tractor Company was originally formed in 1925 as the result of a merger between the Holt Manufacturing Company and C. L. Best Tractor Company, the Caterpillar name originated years earlier.

      In the early 1900s, seeking for a way to improve the mobility and traction of his company’s steam tractors, Benjamin Holt replaced the wheels with wooden tracks bolted to chains. The innovation worked so well that one bystander was said to have remarked that the machine crawled along much like a caterpillar. Holt agreed, and dubbed his new machine “Caterpillar,” a name he eventually trademarked in 1910.”

      I love that “tube of jelly doughnuts” metaphor. Watch any time lapse video of these guys, and it’s easy to see just that.

  9. I introduced 40 4th graders to a few big green guys in class yesterday. By the end of the talk, they went from ‘ew’ to ‘aw’ .. once they saw them all grown up! It’s trickier getting them to do that with beetles, esp. the cockroach which is a welcomed worker in our organic garden space.

    Your friend’s ‘to each her own’ made me laugh. I get that a lot.

    1. That journey from ‘ew’ to ‘aw’ is one I’m familiar with — particularly when it comes to wasps and spiders. I’ve not made the transition with fire ants and mosquitoes yet, although I can appreciate the mosquitoes’ value as a food source for other creatures.

      Sometimes, friends don’t even say, “To each her own.” They don’t have to. Their expression says it all. I laugh, too.

    1. Thanks, Pit. It is a wonderful weekend here, for sure. The wind finally has died, the skies are blue, and the temperature is warming — it’s like an early Christmas gift.

  10. Great post, Linda! Frankly, I prefer the adult stages of these critters, but we all have to pass through an “ugly duckling” phase before we get to the good stuff, right?! This Big Green Guy reminds me vividly of the tomato worm I plucked off my bush earlier this summer. I’m glad to know yours are still finding tasty treats while ours are hibernating over the winter.

    1. The BGG certainly does resemble a tomato hornworm. In the process of looking up a bit of unrelated information about hornworms, I discovered something that made me realize just how — wonderful? crazy? absurd? — this world is. For the low, low price of $14.83, you can order 25-30 hornworms from Amazon (not eligible for Prime). If you run short, you can replenish your stock. What a world.

      I saw a few butterflies yesterday, despite the cold temperatures and strong winds we’ve had. Whether there still are caterpillars around, I haven’t a clue, but I’ll be looking more closely, for sure.

  11. Great photos, Linda. Your macro lens is being put to good use! Peggy came home from a library forum on monarchs a while ago loaded down with milkweed to plant. I’d forgotten about it. This spring I will have to go see if any of the plants are growing. –Curt

    1. That macro lens is one of the best purchases I’ve ever made, Curt. Now that I have a sort-of grasp of how to put the thing to work, I need to begin working on landscapes, where I’m wonderfully terrible at getting the kind of results I want. No matter — the process itself is enjoyable.

      Speak sweetly to that milkweed and encourage it. Your butterflies with thank you.

      1. I think photography is one of those activities that you can go on learning forever, Linda.
        There is quite a group here that concerns themselves with butterflies. They even tag Monarchs. I didn’t see as many Monarchs this summer as I saw of other butterflies, but they were always treat. –Curt

    1. Although some areas seemed to have fewer monarchs this year, I’ve never seen so many. Whether it was an increase in numbers or a shift in their travel patterns, I can’t say. What’s certain is that innumerable groups in our area — and even municipalities — are getting on board with the native plant movement: adding butterfly gardens, and exchanging landscapes for wildscapes. If we could get some HOAs on board, it would be even better.

      Glad you enjoyed the photos. They are cute as the dickens, even if not Dickens-approved.

  12. Mmm… So, adjusting for scale, prraps it’s a ppossibilty that Monarch #2 is actually pposing beside its own (or a sibling’s) empty egg case?
    And the very first time I saw this photo, I recall thinking that Your Big Green Guy is missing only one thing… and that’s his hookah; )

    1. And now I’m going to have Grace Slick singing “White Rabbit” in my head all night — with that great line about the hookah-smoking caterpillar. Actually, it was rather fun to listen to her Woodstock performance again.

      I wondered if that might have been a chrysalis, rather than an egg case. I spent a good bit of time looking at photos, and finally decided I’m 80% convinced that’s what it is. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize it was there until I got the photos up on the computer. If I’d seen it, I would have collected it for further study.

    1. Aren’t they something? I’ve found other caterpillars from time to time, but the ones I’ve found are fuzzy. One, the woolly bear, is considered by some to predict the severity of winter. But these plump, colorful ones? I think they’re ever so much cuter. Those feet just knock me out.

  13. It’s not easy being green! And besides, green is the color of Christmas trees. So I’m wishing you a very merry Christmas my dear friend. May the coming year bring you lots of good photo material as well as good health and happiness.

    1. It’s nice to think of green as the color of Christmas trees, and not simply the color of the Grinch! It’s been one of those years, as they say, but a new year is coming, with fresh treasures to enjoy. I hope every day of it’s a blessing for you. “They” say even our difficulties can be a blessing. I’m not always sure of that, but I’m willing to give that old wisdom a chance! Merry Christmas to you and to Dr. Advice!

  14. All these caterpillars would qualify for the part of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, in terms of appetite. Caterpillars are eminently watchable, and I am glad you found these ‘lookers’ to watch and photograph. Your mention of The Big Green Guy made me wonder if TBGG was in fact a guy. And I wondered if it was possible to tell the sex of a monarch caterpillar. I found some answers here

    1. I found the thought of translucent caterpillars as compelling as any other detail in the article. Most of those I’ve come across are at the other end of that spectrum; they’re hairy, and solid-looking, and don’t give many clues about which is their front and which is their rear, except for the direction they’re crawling. That’s part of what I find so delightful about these; so many details are visible. Of course, I’ve never applied my macro lens to a fuzzy caterpillar, so who knows what I’ll see when I do that.

      As for the Big Green Guy — it could have been alliteration that gave him that name, since ‘Big Green Girl’ just doesn’t have the same ring. But Big Green Guy he is and ever shall be — at least, for me. Maybe my childhood love of the jolly green giant that showed up on so many of our canned vegetables left me with a conviction that all big, green creatures are male.

        1. That’s quite a fruit! As for the giant-who’s-a-guy, that brand of canned veggies has been ubiquitous in the U.S. for years. Since it was distributed nationally, it’s possible you saw it here, even if only in a grocery store. The advertisements were everywhere, too. The older ones are amusing, but I thought this newer one was cute. (Not only that, I just realized that was a UK commercial. The brand may have been advertised more broadly, world-wide, than I knew.)

          1. When I looked at the advertisement in your link, I checked out some other JGG ads as well. The Little Green Sprout popped up, and I realised I remembered him too.

            1. What’s interesting is that I didn’t remember the Little Green Sprout. He’s a cute one. In the commercial I watched, it ended with him going to sleep in a pea pod. That reminded me of an expression I haven’t heard in ages: snug as a bug in a rug.

  15. Oh, I love your Monarch caterpillars! They look so rubbery, just like in real life. It’s a good thing you have sharp eyes and noticed the yellow tape. Wonderful photos!! (I used to see them most every year in and around NY state, then less and less, and I certainly haven’t seen one out here, where it seems there are fewer butterflies of any kind, probably because it’s a little too cold). I know that next year you’ll be hoping to find that same spot, taped off again, right?

    1. ‘Rubbery’ is just the right word. Every time I look at a time-lapse video of the creatures doing their caterpillar thing, the expanding and contracting does make them seem remarkably stretchy.

      Whether they’ll be in the same spot next year is hard to say, but they certainly will be in the general area. Now that I’ve learned to read the signs of the monarch-seekers — silk bags over seed pods, unusually placed sticks as markers, yellow tape flags — I have a much better sense of where to begin looking. They’re my advance scouts, so to speak.

  16. Will you look at him! He’s really cute. Not as flashy and pretty as the monarch larvae but boy, he has character and charm. I rarely see caterpillars. I know they’re around and I probably don’t look. But boy — when you look and look CLOSE like you did here, what you see!

    1. He looks to me like a kid that’s been caught stuffing chocolate chip cookies into his mouth when he’s just been told, “Leave those alone!” Their little feet are darling, and those tiny eyes. It amazes me that the closeups and the details they reveal somehow make them more “real” — or at least more easily recognized as little creatures who have their own quite interesting lives to lead!

  17. Great images from both you and Steve. What characters they are. I was able to see the pupation once and it happens rather quickly. It is well worth waiting for, if one is able to. Steve’s image looks like a walrus or sea lion. So funny!

  18. They are characters, aren’t they? I certainly can see them in a children’s book; as funny and appealing as they are to adults, the kids would adore them. I’d not seen the walrus or sea lion resemblance, but there it is. Thanks for expanding my vision!

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