Neither Friend Nor Foe

Lunch is on me! Meals to go.

Funny how we tend to find it comforting to sort things out into usually two baskets: vegetables and weeds, good guys and bad, cops and robbers.

In the case of garden good guys and bad guys, while they may have some rudimentary awareness of each other–especially perhaps of predator for prey–they have no context at all for that sacred perimeter we refer to as OUR garden, nor do they so much as skip a beat to consider how their presence makes US feel.

The two creatures you see here–one conspicuous, the other not so much (and let’s look right past the living plants herein) have, by stroke of pure chance, ended up as characters in my life this morning.

The tomato (or tobacco) horn worm, of course, came here in the form of an egg deposited by its adult-form moth some weeks ago. It has been growing there unnoticed for some days, weeks possibly, though these things spurt quickly to full size. That is, if they do not themselves become food.

My compliments to the caterpillar on its exemplary coloration, so perfectly matched to the vines it eats almost overnight that, when they are discovered, it is almost first the bladeless midvein of a consumed leaf or the dark green-black fecal casts you will spot first. (They really need to talk to the poop pigment department about this give-away color contrast. Bummer.)

And I am ever so grateful for the tiny fly about the size of this letter i who can find these tubular meals on wheels (prolegs doesn’t rhyme) with such precision, reproduce in such fecundity (there are some 60 pupa cases on this one caterpillar) and then go off once hatched and do it all over again.

The same morning, I found the first of the praying mantis hatchlings that I assume came from the egg case left in early spring by a pregnant female mantis, thank you very much. More gardening justice from yet another oblivious ally just stopping by for lunch.

More about the braconid wasps that are pseudo-parasites on tomato horn worms from a post from a few years back.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. That caterpillar looks so healthy, like no number of pupae could kill him. Do they? Or do they just cause him to weaken and lose his appetite? (I am such an ignorant city girl!)