COLUMN: Nature’s beauty and the beast

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It continues to amaze me what nature can come up with and in just the past couple of weeks, I’ve encountered beautiful winged creatures and horned monsters just miles apart. As far as insects go, they’re even related to one another.

Of course, people judge what in nature, whether plants or animals, is beautiful and what is ugly. Perhaps most amazing to me is how much goes on under our noses, or sometimes, just outside our homes.

Thursday’s front page photo of a moth feeding on a butterfly bush drew comments from several readers, some of whom had seen similar moths in their gardens and yards.

One reader told us we misidentified the moth. What we called a hummingbird moth, one reader said, was instead a bumblebee moth. Hummingbird moths, the reader wrote in an email, have larger eyes and abdomens. I sent photos of the month to a few insect experts and was still waiting to hear back from them Friday.

I was dangerously close to calling the creature a small hummingbird but my staff pointed out that it had no beak, something most birds come with.

Whether a bumblebee moth or a hummingbird moth, the flying marvel of nature was a sight to behold and among nature’s beauties.

The monster I encountered – two of them actually – was a hickory horned devil caterpillar, a fat green worm that appeared so menacing when found in Cannelton, that someone turned a specimen in to the police.

I happened to be at the police station when the caterpillar arrived – 6 inches long, Frankenstein green in color and wriggling in a jam jar. On its head were several dangerous-looking horns

A quick online search identified it as a hickory horned devil, the pupa stage of a regal moth. Most of us learned about metamorphosis in elementary school biology. Butterflies lay eggs, which grow into caterpillars, which grow through various instars or growth stages. They later pupate and emerge as winged adults. That’s an oversimplification but I fear any more details will put me into dangerous ground, as did trying to specify the type of moth on last week’s front page.

The caterpillar was nearing its pupa stage and was likely working its way down a tree or across the ground before digging into the ground.

Then, the miracle of metamorphosis, the caterpillar will turn into a pupa and then morph into a regal moth. I’ve seen the reddish moths, actually one of the largest moths in our area, but never knew their larval stage consisted of such scary-looking caterpillars.

Their scary appearance is a trick by nature to lessen the chances of the worms being eaten. While the spines near the caterpillars’ head appear to be stingers, they are harmless and the larvae do not sting or bite. In fact, when held in their hand, they are pretty docile.

I’m not sure what happened to that caterpillar. I hope it was released unharmed. I spied a second one on a low-lying sweet gum branch a few days later. It was just as large and mean-looking. I watched it for a few minutes and left it in peace.

Nature is amazing.