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!

 

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