The Caterpillars Who Ate Dessert First

One of our prettiest Texas wildflowers is the Skeleton Plant (Lygodesmia texana), so-called because its leafless, oddly-angled stems resemble a collection of bones. It’s attractive to a wide variety of insects; in the flower below, a skipper sips nectar while a beetle — a Spotted Flower Buprestid (Acmaeodera ornata) — prepares to nibble on the ray florets.

In early May, Skeleton flowers blooming on the fringes of Cost, Texas were hosting innumerable caterpillars which might have belonged to the genus Pontia, since Checkered White butterflies (Pontia protodice) also were present. The caterpillars’ behavior seemed a little odd, so I began watching one of the creatures.

Rather than eating the plants’ basal leaves or stems, it made tracks for the flower heads, moving straight up the stem at quite a good clip. Once at the top, it peered into the flower, grabbed one of the stamens, and proceeded to munch. 

Caterpillar on a mission
Mission accomplished!

While I watched, it worked its way from one stamen to the next, seeming to enjoy the taste.

In ten minutes or so, it had consumed every one of the stamens. At that point, I expected it to begin eating the plant’s ray flowers. Instead, it turned, climbed back down the stem, and headed for another Skeleton Flower, where it repeated its climb to the top.

With at least three caterpillars engaging in the same behavior, I couldn’t help tasting one of the stamens. It wasn’t sweet as pie or ice cream, but it certainly wasn’t bitter; perhaps there was a bit of nectary sweetness that appealed to the insects.

Whatever the taste, I couldn’t help wondering if the caterpillars might have adopted the approach of some humans: life is short, so eat dessert first — and pity the poor ant who’s late to the table.

No more stamens ~ the pollen jar’s empty!

 

Comments always are welcome.

59 thoughts on “The Caterpillars Who Ate Dessert First

  1. This is one of your best, yet, Linda. Caterpillar “paws” in 4th and 5th pics are a sight new to me. Thank you for investment in lenses and for the always excellent posts.

    1. I’ve come to love everything about caterpillars — well, except for those nasty stinging ones that show up every year. I think their ability to travel and manipulate things is amazing. The best photos of their feet I’ve ever managed are in this post. Aren’t they just adorable?

  2. In going from stamen to stamen these caterpillars show plenty of stamina.

    Your skipper and spotted beetle play well together (as an elementary school teacher might say on a report card).

    1. Stamina, indeed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen caterpillars move so fast, except perhaps for the Live Oak Tussock Moth. It seemed like there were hundreds of them around this year, and they really can scoot. It’s great fun to watch them.

      I’d forgotten about ‘works and plays well with others.’ We could use more of that for today’s big people.

    1. I wished I could have produced some better images, but it was so windy, and the caterpillars moved around so much, it was hard. Still, there are times when a few nice, documentary photos are just fine, and I certainly was eager to document this behavior. I’d never seen such a thing.

  3. Why can’t we all just get along like the skipper and buprestid? Did you notice any other caterpillars eating stamens? Maybe that’s their m.o. I’ve seen caterpillars eating flowers but not like this. Cool find.

    1. I found four that were chowing down on the stamens. It was so odd. I’m accustomed to seeing caterpillars eating leaves, stems, and flowers, and I often enough see beetles eating flower petals, but this was a new one. It was the selectivity that fascinated me — they were like someone picking through a box of chocolates, looking for their favorite.

  4. The caterpiggles’ eating habits may be very short-sighted — if they eat all the stamens before they’ve had a chance to do their job, that means no seeds, and that means no goodies next year. Could they be eliminating the flowers that compete with those they like better?

    1. I doubt that level of intentionality. On the other hand, who knows? What I am sure of is that the flowers aren’t in much danger. This wasn’t the sort of infestation that can take out large number of plants, and there were so many of these around — many already sending off their dandelion-like seeds — thatnext year’s crop is asssured. Well, as long as other conditions are right — like rain.

    1. These days, I take my wit and wisdom where I can find it, and to be honest, these caterpillars aren’t the worst advice-givers in the world!

  5. Your photos are amazing, Linda, full of such fascinating and intricate details. That predilection for stamens might be a sign of the caterpillar’s good taste, but I wonder what it will do to the survival/propagation of the flower.

    1. Certainly that individual flower isn’t going to do much to help propagate the species, but the species itself is secure. I mentioned to Eliza that we’re deep enough into the season — it really is summer here now — that many of these plants already are spreading their seeds, getting ready for their seasonal decline. Whether these caterpillars enjoy the stamens on a regular basis I can’t say, but seeing the phenomenon was interesting, and there certainly was no shortage of the flowers, even though they naturally tend to be more scattered than flowers like Firewheels or Mexican Hats.

  6. Superb images. The details are very sharp and bring alive the subject of this post. You really got to ‘the heart of the matter’.

    1. Thank you so much, Vicki. Like you, I find the behavior of everything from birds to insects fascinating, and being able to peer into their world — even a bit — with a macro lens is pure delight. For some reason I find caterpillar faces and feet especially appealing, and this behavior amused me no end.

    1. On the other hand, all that chewing may have released a different form of sugar, water, or ‘whatever’ that attracted the ant. The image is the same, but interpretations could differ — as so often happens in life.

    1. It was fascinating, Liz. It makes perfect sense that different insects would prefer different plants, or different parts of plants, but this seemed such a specific preference I couldn’t stop looking.

  7. What a fascinating bit of behavior you found. And it’s incredible how quickly it devoured all those stamens. I can certainly understand the pull to dessert, having a bit of a sweet tooth, myself.

    I just recently found a large caterpillar on a leaf laying down silk. It appeared it was beginning to make a coccoon. I’m not sure yet what type of caterpillar but it was one of those with a large bulbous “head” that had “eyes” on each side. Really interesting creature. I’m hoping I’ll get back to that location and find it’s not been disturbed. I’d love to see the butterfly that emerges.

    1. I’ve watched caterpillars eating their way through leaves and such, and they can be pretty quick, but this was quite a sight. There’s no question that the creatures were after only one part of the plant. I’ve never seen skeleton flowers eaten down like that, so maybe this was just a gang of four out for an afternoon’s fun.

      I saw some of those caterpillars with the ‘big eyes’ when I was trying to identify this one. They’re so odd looking: almost cartoonish. I thought it was interesting that their true eyes are normally sized. The big ‘eye spots’ are there to make predators think twice before making a run at them. The Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar is one that has those eyespots. I’d love to find one of those.

  8. I wonder if the stamens contain an essential dietary component? Maybe an entomologist with experience with this species will weigh in on this.

    1. That would make sense, although it’s also the case that I’ve never before found Skeleton flowers with missing stamens. If they were an important part of the caterpillar’s diet, I’d think there would be more evidence of the stamens being eaten. We’re accustomed enough to finding anomalous flowers; perhaps this was only an example of anomalous behavior.

    1. Since four caterpillars hardly are a large enough sample size to draw any scientific conclusions, I let my imagination play a bit. Their chomping away on just the stamens does raise a few questions, but I certainly can’t answer them. I’ll just enjoy the critters’ behavior.

  9. These photos are remarkable, Linda — especially the one with it in his mouth! You have great patience and it paid off! And the bloom itself is lovely and very well named. I like the idea of eating dessert first — always a plus!

    1. It took me a while, but eventually I figured out that the most interesting thing about a flower sometimes is the insect that’s visiting it. They sleep, eat, mate, and socialize on those blooms, and catching them in the act is great fun. The Skeleton flower’s one of my favorites, for its color as well as its shape, and I’ve always loved those curly stamens that look like they’ve been dusted with glitter. Maybe that glitter was what attracted the caterpillars.

  10. Nice that these critters all play well in the sandbox together! But I find myself wondering: doesn’t the stamen have something to do with plant reproduction, and if the caterpillar eats them, won’t that mean the plants don’t reproduce??

    1. Bingo! You got it just right. No stamens means no seeds — but I’m not at all worried about a Skeleton Plant shortage. The ones that the caterpillars eat won’t reproduce, but there are plenty more. Their seeds are like those of dandelions, and when I found the caterpillars lunching on these, there already were flowers that had gone to seed and were spreading the love around the country.

      Not only that, I’ve never found another Skeleton Plant that was missing its stamens. This was just one of nature’s little oddities — it may happen more often than we know, but it seems the flowers don’t suffer for it.

      1. Thanks for explaining that, Linda. I’d hat to think these plants would go extinct. There’s already been too much of that, ha!

  11. More superb photography!

    What a fascinating study in caterpillar behavior. Kudos on your patience and curiosity.

    I was jealous of your beautiful flower until I discovered we have its relative all around us! L. aphylla, Rose-rush looks quite similar. Now to get out and find some with munching caterpillars.

    Pretty certain it was not a coincidence you remarked to someone earlier about taking advice from caterpillars. A nod to Mr. Carroll, perhaps.

    Pursuing the idea of creating a line of Tee-shirts: “Life Is Short. Eat Dessert First!”

    1. Once I realized what this caterpillar was up to, there was nothing for it but to stick around and watch. Eventually, I thought to look around, and found the others that were engaged in the same behavior. I’d think if it were common, I’d have seen other Skeleton Flowers missing their stamens, but that hasn’t been the case. Sweet mystery of life, and all that!

      Your version of the flower is so nearly identical it could be easily mistaken for ours. I thought it interesting that it’s described as a near-endemic in Florida, and even more interesting that the photo on the page was taken at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. It does seems that the seedheads look a little different, but that’s only a guess based on photos.

      Speaking of plants and sweetness, have you ever tasted Borage? I call it a tea party in a plant. The leaves taste like cucumber (hello cucumber finger sandwiches) and the flowers are sweet.

    1. Thanks, Ann. I was pretty amazed by the caterpillars’ behavior, and I was glad to be able to capture at least a bit of it to share. I’m not sure when I’ll see something like this again!

    1. Thanks, Judy. I don’t see many caterpillars, but most that I see are busy eating. The only exceptions are the oak tussock moths, which I’ve never seen eating. They just roam around, and they’re fast. They do eat, since I’ve read accounts of them defoliating live oaks, but they don’t seem to cause much problem here.

  12. I don’t think I have saw a caterpillar eat stamens, Linda. Fasinating with great photos. It does bring to mind a wise old saying of Texas Skeleton plants, however: If a caterpillar comes knocking on your door, don’t anther. –Curt

    1. Oh, groan!!! If there ever was a day when I could use a good laugh, this is it — so thanks for that! I certainly never have seen behavior like this — I was glad to see it at least once.

    1. This could have been a part of “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street”! You’re right that the flowers are Seuss-like. I’d never really associated him with flowers, but a quick search for “Dr. Seuss Flowers” produced quite a set of images!

  13. The first flower image is really lovely – a prettier version of the nonnative Cichorium intybus I see a lot.
    The caterpillar images are fascinating, what a curious behavior. There’s a lot of nutrition in the pollen, I suppose. The caterpillar I find feeding in flowers in summer is Raspberry Looper, but I always find them on Black-eyed Susan, not raspberry.

    1. Chicory! Akin to the bachelor buttons my grandmother grew. I like both, but I’ve always enjoyed the stamens of this one. They look sugar-frosted, or glittery. They’re just so pretty.

      What really perplexes me about these caterpillars noshing on the stamens is that I’ve never seen another skeleton flower without stamens. You’d think if this was common behavior, more flowers would show evidence of the caterpillars’ presence. Who knows? Not me, that’s for sure. This is one of those cases where I only report, and don’t try to explain.

  14. I don’t think we have those out here. At least I don’t think I’ve ever seen any. They are a pretty delicate pink. And how strange that the caterpillars eat just the stamens. Seems counter productive, eating the part responsible for the flower’s reproduction.

    1. I’ve only found these flowers in the hill country — or on the Edwards Plateau generally. Honestly, I think I caught some aberrant behavior, as I’ve never found other caterpillars doing this, and I’ve never seen a skeleton flower missing its stamens. They form dandelion-like seeds, and later in the year there are plenty of them sending their fluff and seeds into the air, so — who knows?

  15. I just loved this. Fascinating seeing how many creatures this flower feeds. Shame the ant missed out. Wonderful photography and observation.xxx

    1. Often enough I find multiples of the same species on a flower, but a collection of different species always is fun. I do wonder now if the ant missed out, or if it was moving in to collect a little sweetness (or something) left at the broken anthers. It’s always worth checking out the leftovers, after all!

    1. It was quite something to see, Lisa. There’s always a critter up to something, somewhere. I don’t add these to iNaturalist — in fact, I’ve only posted a few things there. I do use it for other purposes, though, and find it quite useful for identification and locating sightings.

  16. Interesting observation. Sounds like the caterpillar is getting a head start on its new diet post metamorphosis. I’ve been known to eat dessert in lieu of supper if I ate a large enough midday dinner.

    1. We’ve all done that, I think. Even if there’s not a formal dessert around, I’ve been known to make a supper of ice cream: especially in the summer.

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