part 5: look, it’s complicated

It’s been about a year since I picked up my linoleum tiles and carving tools to make a print. It felt good! I’ve wanted to create this lifecycle piece for awhile now, but had forgotten about it. I was reminded while here at the lovely Oak Spring Garden Foundation for my artist in residency stay, and had the time to dig in.

During my evening walks and meanderings about the gardens, I’ve been entertained by the flurry of hawk moth activity. We met in the lilies, and I followed them out to the 4 o’clocks- both very pronounced and tubular flowers.

This piece is inspired by the complicated relationships we have with insects. As a farmer and seed saver, growing tomatoes is important to me. As an ecologist and lover of all life, insects are also important to me. The process of metamorphosis so many insects undergo is marvelous. From a caterpillar to a pupae to a moth or butterfly. I wrote about metamorphosis awhile ago.

Oh my! It’s something spectacular.

My latest linoleum carving + print showcasing all stages of this insects life from egg to moth.

But when a tomato hornworm shows up, things get really complicated.

I think the bright green caterpillars are cute! Soft and silky, I like to pet them gently. After a few strokes, they settle in, and I think they might actually like the little massage. The horn on their back is a bluff. They are gentle, tomato-loving creatures. But they are ravenous for tomato plants and can do quite a bit of damage before going noticed.

Once they are fat and satiated on tomato leaves, flowers, and even fruits, they crawl to the soil and pupate underground. This is where metamorphosis magic happens. Cells liquefy and re-organize themselves. Crawling muscles swapped for flight muscles, extra legs swapped for wings, and so on.

The emerging pupa are gorgeous moths, known as the 5-spotted hawk moth. Their exquisitely long proboscis (tongue) is specially designed to sip from flowers with similarly long and tubular necks. They need each other. They are so large and so fast, they are often mistaken for hummingbirds. And so they are also colloquially referred to as hummingbird moths.

An Oak Spring Garden resident visiting the 4 o’clocks.

I’ve seen them consistently every evening here at Oak Spring Gardens. I imagine back down in Florida, they are finding some great native plants like jessamine, phlox, trumpet vine and coral honeysuckle, which are depicted in this piece. Long tubular flowers with a sweet nectar treat waaaaay down in there, waiting for the pollinator match to arrive. Lots of ornamental garden plants are also likely to attract them.

Unlike hummingbirds, these nectar feeding pollinators are mostly active at dusk and night time. They lay their eggs singly on the host plant- tomatoes- starting the cycle all over again. Each tiny egg will hatch into a teeny tiny caterpillar that will successfully grow into larger and larger versions of themselves – as they devour tomato plants. We often won’t spot them till significant damage is done and they are quite fat. At this point, they are close to going into life phase 3: underground pupae.

Farmers and gardeners typically reach for a bottle of something or other to “take care” of the problem. And they are not necessarily wrong in doing so. Tomato hornworms have the ability to destroy a crop of tomatoes if it gets out of hand.

I have found a balance.

I will let a few get large enough to successfully become pupae, depending on the size of my tomato plant population. The little tiny caterpillars (if I can find them!) might be squished, along with an apology and a prayer if I feel the plants can’t sustain their own growth and that of the hungry, hungry caterpillars.

Sometimes nature swoops in on horrifying wings and takes care of things. Braconid parasitoid wasps lay their eggs inside a living hornworm caterpillar, and the hatched larvae literally eat the poor caterpillar alive. So if you ever see white rice-like things protruding out the back of a caterpillar, best leave it alone and let Mother Nature do her thing.

I may resort to spraying with Bt, a fairly harmless and organic approved spray (harmless for all but caterpillars of course) on select plants. Tilling can reduce pupa in the soil by about 90%, but tilling has its own issues for soil health too.

Like I said, it’s complicated. But beautiful.

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