I’m going to have to rethink blaming the cottontails for the senseless pruning of some of the wildflowers we’ve planted in our yard this year. By senseless, I mean the stems are cut and the cut portion is left lying there, seemingly without anything having been eaten. Yesterday morning when I stepped out the front door, I found this example (the plant is a blue mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum):
Animal trackers will recognize in the above photo the distinctive 45-degree angle cut characteristic of rabbit browse, and on top of that, this guy was sitting right there looking guilty:
Case closed, right?
And yet… because I happened to step out at the right moment, I was able to catch the real culprit in the act:
A woolly bear! I never would have guessed, but there it was—the larva of the isabella tiger moth (Erebidae: Pyrrharctia isabella) gnawing away at the freshly cut stem.
And this was no isolated occurrence. On the next stem over, there was another woolly bear just finishing a similar cut, having already severed the stem in two other places:
And checking the plants on the other side of the house, I found a similar scene:
In some cases, caterpillar droppings had collected on leaves, which would have offered a clue if I had found the cut stems after the caterpillars had moved on.
To be fair, the woolly bears aren’t the only caterpillars around with a taste for blue mistflower stems. The other day I found a banded tussock moth caterpillar (Halysidota tessellaris) in the process of doing this…
…I had removed that one and tossed it into a patch of some less precious plants. Yesterday I left the woolly bears alone, but this morning when I found a pair of them working together at the base of a stem, I did pluck those off and escort them into the meadow. I can’t imagine why they are suddenly obsessed with blue mistflower, but we’ve been enjoying the flowers for several weeks now and they will succumb to a frost soon anyway, so it’s not really a big deal. Plus it’s been nice to see so many woolly bears bustling about the yard; I just never suspected what they were up to. I still am pretty sure it was the rabbits that mowed down the newly planted wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria) and New York asters (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii) several weeks ago, but I’ll be watching more closely from now on.