Monday, January 27, 2014

The vanishing act

The monarchs were not alone in facing danger in the garden this winter.  On the papaya, there were signs that Alope sphinx moth (Erinnyis alope) caterpillars had been chewing on the edges of the leaves.  However, the caterpillars themselves were nowhere to be seen.  These caterpillars can be well camouflaged against papaya leaf veins, but in this case the caterpillars were not simply disguised.  The caterpillars were gone, and in their place, something else was lined up along the leaf veins.

A ball of white fuzz along a papaya leaf vein.
On several of the papaya leaves, there were fuzzy white objects.  Although the objects were roughly cocoon shaped, they were obviously not the cocoons of the sphinx moths (which pupate on the ground).  Looking from another angle, I could tell that the white fuzz was hollow inside -- just as if it had been made around a caterpillar.

The hollow center of the white fuzz.
Indeed, it looked that way because it had been shaped around a caterpillar.  Parasitic wasp larvae had eaten the caterpillar and then spun their own cocoons within a fuzzy matrix around the quickly disappearing remains of their host.  In a previous year, we kept some of this white fuzz in a jar to find out what was inside; the result was a jar full of tiny black wasps!

Explore some more: Erinnyis alope life cycle

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