Nature Table for September is Pupating

Nature Table for September

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new nature table whose contents inspire learning along a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. A tradition carried out by teachers, environmental educators, and nature-curious families, nature tables bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. The idea behind a nature table is to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves. A nature table can include a variety of items, and is often accompanied by a set of books and/or field guides so that children can take part in further learning at their own will.

This month’s nature table was inspired by a likely seasonal catalyst, but is filled with very unlikely specimens, given where we started. What began as a discussion of seasonal foods has somehow evolved into the creation of a horde of young entomologists! (Or perhaps it would be more fitting to say that the topic has pupated.)

Rather than a collection of the numerous varieties of both cultivated and wild apples that can be found in orchards, farms, and backyards, this month’s nature table is a terrarium filled almost to capacity with more species of caterpillars than I, the head naturalist, have ever noticed while experiencing nature. We have the classic monarch, the hated hornworm, the fear-inducing hickory tussock, and at least twelve other species – some of whom we haven’t been successful in identifying.

How did we get here?

“Ms. Huntley, I have an apple tree at home!”

Most of us do around here.

“It’s so tall!  And it always drops apples on me while I wait for the bus!”

Mine are up to similar antics, yes.

AND it’s FULL of CATERPILLARS!  They’re eating ALL of its leaves!”

Oh – now we’re interested!

This moment – the one intended to spark a foray into local culture, local history, pollination, and a host of other topics – has steered us in a completely different direction. We discussed the eastern tent caterpillar with disdain, told stories of the browntail moth, and shared opinions on the legitimacy of using woolly bears to predict the severity of a winter. I thought we might return to apples the next day, or perhaps the one after, but young minds are not easily swayed, and now I am responsible for upwards of twenty impossibly small and squashy beings.

As it turns out, caterpillars are a perfect topic of study and are the easiest and most entertaining of all the live specimens I’ve allowed to be kept as “pets.” A simple terrarium with a few inches of dirt and a tightly attached screen lid is a perfect home, though I’ll admit that trial and error during our early caterpillar days lead to the unfortunate death of more than a few specimens.

Together, we’re learning how to watch them, how to identify them, and how to care for them. We’ll watch as some pupate and emerge as winged beasts before the morning chill lasts all day, and we’ll wait to see which ones burrow and make their grand entrance in the spring. We’re exploring new field guides, noticing details, and even conquering our fears – but the best part of our learning is that we are truly learning together. The young naturalists are at this point perhaps even more expert on the subject of caterpillars than I am. We’re truly in this experience together.

Common species in New England include:

  • Monarch
  • Milkweed tussock moth (caution: tussocks can feel like stinging nettle to some hands)
  • Hickory tussock moth
  • Tomato hornworm
  • Gypsy moth
  • Woolly bear
  • Cabbage worm

Tips for keeping caterpillars for study:

  • Collect a small portion of the plant you found the caterpillar on – it’s probably its food.
  • Mist your terrarium a few times a day; otherwise, it will dry out, the food plants will dry out, and your caterpillars will begin to dry out as well.
  • Give your caterpillars a few sticks to climb on.  Many of them like to climb, and others need sticks for their cocoons and chrysalises.
  • Keep a few inches of soil at the bottom for burrowing species.
  • Be sure to put your terrarium outside for the winter, but make sure it’s protected (unheated garage, tool shed, etc.).
  • Be prepared to struggle with identification!  There are many, many species, and it can be very difficult to find names for all of them if you’re not an expert.

Robin Morgan Huntley, Community-Based Education Correspondent

A native to Maine, Robin joined Hilltown Families in early 2011 as an intern and remained over the years volunteering as a community-based education correspondent until moving back to Maine in 2016. Robin is a graduate of Antioch University with a masters in education. Her interests within the field of education include policy and all types of nontraditional education. For her undergraduate project at Hampshire College, Robin researched the importance of connecting public schools with their surrounding communities, especially in rural areas. Robin currently lives with her husband, cats and rabbits in Maine and is a 5th grade public school teacher.

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