Every now and then, a friend or neighbour will come to my door, or send me a picture, and ask me to look at some creature they’ve found in their garden. It’s always interesting to see how people react to what they’ve found; excitement, panic and concern are all shown. I’m ever curious, so it’s always a pleasure to see the mystery and even better if I can identify it.
Often, it will be something quite common – someone might be disturbed by a mass of flying ants emerging from a gap at the base of a wall, or they’ll be fretting about a hedgehog tucked up and fast asleep under the leafy canopy of a herbaceous perennial. The hedgehog was a lovely sight, its spiny body rising and falling as it breathed slowly in its sleep. The neighbour was worried that something might be wrong, but hedgehogs are nocturnal and sleep in the day time.
Elsewhere, in early summer, I might be shown the gag-inducing larvae of lily beetles (Lilioceris lilii), which disguise themselves with a thick, blobby layer of their own excrement. It may be an effective camouflage, but the sight makes me nauseous.
The most recent query came a week or so ago. A neighbour, Jennifer, came to the door urgently asking me to look at a photograph of a creature she’d found on her back door mat. As she held the picture for me to look at, she was excitedly asking, ‘What is it, what is it?’. It was the caterpillar of an elephant hawk moth (Deilephila elpenor), so called because the caterpillar’s head and mouth parts somewhat resemble an elephant’s trunk. When the caterpillar is alarmed, it draws its head into its thorax, which then appears bulbous and shows a pattern like two large eyes. Jennifer’s garden contained none of the favourite food of hawk moth larvae, rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium), so I suspected it had gone for what they will eat in gardens and had been chewing through the foliage of her Fuchsias.
We walked to her house and found the caterpillar still on the coconut door mat, looking not unlike a tiny stuffed toy. We knelt down for a closer look and it raised its head as if to stare back. A coconut doormat isn’t a good place for a caterpillar that prefers eating Fuchsias and rosebay willowherb, so I suggested that we re-locate it to my garden as there are Fuchsias there too. I thought that one in particular, a large and, to me, uninspiring, specimen of ‘Whiteknights Pearl‘, should please it. Carefully, we picked up the caterpillar and put it into an empty plant pot, then walked to my garden and gently laid it on a stem of the plant, where it hopefully had a good meal before burrowing into the soil and overwintering as a pupa. I went to look for it later, but didn’t find it. Maybe it had hidden itself amongst the foliage, hopefully it hadn’t been predated. I had been going to evict ‘Whiteknights Pearl’, with its pale, insipid flowers, but have now changed my mind – it can become a nursery plant for elephant hawk moth caterpillars.