Monty Halls: seeing a huge caterpillar become an Elephant Hawk-moth is amazing

By
Monty Halls


PUBLISHED:

16:30 EST, 11 October 2013


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UPDATED:

16:30 EST, 11 October 2013

Autumn is a time of change, of transformation, a fact brought home to me as I drove down the lane to the house the other day.

The leaves on the branches that arched overhead were a vivid patchwork of different colours, from bright yellows all the way through to gorgeous deep ochres. They thrashed and trembled as the wind whipped through the tree-tops, with those that had already fallen coating the track ahead of me.

Such a scene was a dramatic contrast to only a few weeks ago, when we were enjoying the glowing embers of a glorious summer. Autumn is now well and truly here and will only move on when winter arrives, so it’s time to batten down the hatches and turn up the heating.

I was reminded neatly about keeping the cold out when I stepped from the car. Crawling slowly across the path in front of me was what appeared to be a draft excluder.

'Autumn is a time of change, of transformation, a fact brought home to me as I drove down the lane to the house the other day', says Monty

‘Autumn is a time of change, of transformation, a fact brought home to me as I drove down the lane to the house the other day’, says Monty

You know the type of thing, the long sausage that you put under the door, amusingly crafted to look like a dachshund. I’m used to seeing these by doors, so you can imagine it was a shock to see one outside, sporting two large eyes at one end, and arching its back slowly to stay on the move.

Closer examination revealed it to be the biggest caterpillar I’ve ever seen. It looked like a salami out on a run, or a remote-control French loaf. I was so impressed I grabbed a (large) jar, and wrestled it inside.

The family weren’t quite as impressed, with girlfriend Tam making vaguely interested noises, daughter Isla looking at me like I’d lost my mind, and Reuben giving no more than a polite wag of the tail. ‘But it’s like an anaconda!’ I spluttered, before putting some leaves in the jar and moodily placing it on a window shelf.

Elephant hawk moth caterpillar (Deilephila elpenor) eating leaves from tree

Elephant hawk moth caterpillar (Deilephila elpenor) eating leaves from tree

Such apathy remained among my nearest and dearest until a series of quite interesting things started happening. The caterpillar/giant snake (the explorer in me remains optimistic) wove a nest of  the leaves, creating what looked like a green purse. It then crawled in, and – in a matter of days – transformed itself into a beautiful chrysalis.

This, as far as Isla was concerned, was worthy of attention, and barely a day goes by without her inspecting the jar. Slightly concerned that a small dragon might emerge, I’ve done a bit of homework and discovered it’s the larvae of the splendidly named Elephant Hawk-moth. I can’t tell you how happy I was that it used the word ‘elephant’ – I felt entirely vindicated.

So now we’re on tenterhooks, waiting like a nervous family in a maternity ward. I peer into the jar every hour, Tam makes lots of cups of tea, Isla has tantrums when she’s not allowed to take the chrysalis out and roll it round the room, and Reubs goes from person to person dispensing reassuring advice via a series of whines and tail wags.

The really interesting side effect of this exercise was that we had brought the outside inside. Just because the weather is a bit grim doesn’t mean that we can’t be showing the next generation the wonders of the garden/hedge/brook/forest.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that you drag alarmed rabbits into your front room – far from it. But all it takes is a few moments of searching and you’ll find all manner of things going about their business.

Break off a small bit of the bush, stick it in a jar, and watch your offspring become mini biologists.

Obviously you’ll want to let it go to carry on its natural life – as we’ll be doing with our Elephant Hawk-moth, assuming the airspace is clear and we get permission from air traffic control. 

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