The two monarch caterpillars we brought indoors hung in a J shape before bursting into a lovely green chrysalis with gold accents. Prior to this event, the caterpillars were in a jar, munching milkweed leaves, dropping astonishingly large poops (called frass) on the paper towel in the jar. Not your typical table centrepiece, to be sure.
These poops, however, are nothing compared to the offerings the tomato hornworm leaves behind – they are literally fertilizing the garden. So why am I leaving them to denude the plant, chew through the ripening tomatoes and tick their displeasure whenever I get to close? Well, someone told me that tomato hornworms turn into hummingbird moths which are beautiful flyers resembling hummingbirds. Further research revealed that while the hummingbird moth is a sphinx moth and hornworms do turn into large-grey sphinx moths, they don’t turn into hummingbird moths. Clear as mud?
So now I have a disgusting tomato plant in my garden filled with frass with half-eaten tomatoes.
I can laugh at this. But it gave me pause to consider how I judge insects as either valuable or a pest. This year I planted some 20 butterfly milkweeds (Asclepias tuberosa) as I try to create a monarch waystation on my property. When several fat, striped Monarch cats (Danaus plexippus) munched the plants to bare stalks, I was thrilled!
So why am I squishing hornworms but not chubby plexippusses? Certainly monarch cats aren’t as disgustingly gross as the hornworms. Neither do I eat butterfly milkweed as I do the tomatoes I grew for my family. There’s obviously a food value here. Still, we humans are an arbitrary lot when it comes to nature, aren’t we? If you’re pretty you can live but if you’re ugly, you must die. If you eat weeds, you’re okay but if you eat my tomatoes, you must die. Only one or two of you? Live! However, if you arrive in hordes (like the spring’s gypsy moth invasion) you must die.
Growing up, I was taught humans are the pinnacle of the food chain. Our task is to be stewards of the earth, taking care of the plants and animals for our service. I still believe that and I’m pro-farmer all the way. I just find as I get older that being a “steward” needs redefining. Instead of the food chain resembling a pyramid as I was taught in school, I suspect it’s more interconnected, like a revolving and evolving circle.
I suspect human aging is not so different than a caterpillar’s metamorphosis: we are born and survive; we take and thrive; we pause and reflect; then cocoon and emerge lighter and (hopefully) wiser. It’s super cool, this transformation process, isn’t it? ◊