A thick stand of goldenrod occupies a vacant lot in Canton, Massachusetts. Each inflorescence is a hub of insect activity. Immediately obvious are the pollinating bees and wasps, the questing ants, and a few large yellow-and-black Megacyllene beetles. A closer inspection reveals even more life here. Hiding among the flowers are ambush bugs patiently waiting for prey and a few perfectly camouflaged crab spiders sitting with arms spread out in welcome. Without knowing what to look for, this might have been the end of our list, but there they are, ridged and perfectly still, blackberry emeralds seamlessly attached to bright green goldenrod stems.
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Three blackberry emerald caterpillars rest like lush green bracts at the base of a sparse goldenrod flower. These are not gregarious caterpillars by nature, but will sometimes occur in sufficient numbers to crowd flowers in a small field.
Caterpillars exist at a very different scale than we are used to. When we go bird watching, we may select an entire habitat to search: A marsh, mountain, stream, or field. With caterpillars, that habitat may be much smaller and more particular. In a caterpillar's world, a single dense flower head in late fall may provide food, shelter, and protection from predators. Equally, a clump of leaves at the base of a cherry tree might be the entire known universe for a whole host of caterpillar species. When searching for caterpillars it is always useful to position ourselves in pristine and appropriate macro habitat, but we must also remember to try and see the world through their eyes, get down on our hands and knees, and consider every leaf and bud. To a caterpillar, a small abandoned lot, or dingy waste place, could equal the Serengeti.
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