Insect Mysteries: Bees and caterpillar

As I’m walking down a sidewalk in Catskill, a honeybee catches my eye. It’s bright with whitish pollen—its legs and sides and even its back are covered. The bee sits on a Rose-of-Sharon leaf and grooms away the pollen, wiping its legs along each other and across its abdomen. Then it heads back toward the large, cup-shaped flowers, but instead of crawling into the depths of the cups, the bee begins cruising the still-closed buds. It lands, noses around the tip of the bud, finds no entrance, and heads for another one.

I am surprised and begin to form theories—the bee is young and does not know how to approach a flower. It was flustered by its first try at the Rose-of-Sharon, whose abundant pollen is loosely poised on a central shaft that combines fused stamens with the pistil. Bees get quickly laden with pollen, but perhaps this one was perturbed by the excess weight and decided to try another strategy. Or maybe it’s been disoriented by a disease.

Next to my house, I watch a bumblebee walk across two feet of concrete and a foot of earth to the base of a red maple. It walks straight up the trunk. I stop watching when my neck is hurting from looking up, but the bee is still marching. Why isn’t it flying? Its wings look intact—I checked.

More theories—the bee is injured and is having trouble flying. It’s young, or tired from a long flight, or sick. It’s following a scent trail, easier to do on foot.

A fat, bright green caterpillar steps boldly onto the road. Traffic is light, but surely this adventurous creature will soon be squashed if left on its path. I pick it up, and it writhes between my fingers, scratching at my skin. I run across the road and drop it in the shade, where it curls up, playing dead. I gently fold it up in a yellow dock leaf and make a loose cage of my hands. I can feel it thrashing inside the leaf.

At the house, I watch it glide across the flagstones. Its body is divided into about eight segments, each with an edge that fits around the following segment. These sharp edges are what scratched my fingers. The green surface is etched with thin, intermittent, diagonal bands, one black and one yellow band per segment. A curving, slender, black projection, like a narrow horn, rises from the tail end. (This horn managed to poke through the leaf when I was carrying the insect.) The front of the head is light brown, blunt, and bristly.

Biologist Uldis Rose has helped me identify this caterpillar as the larva of the laurel sphinx moth, a hummingbird-sized creature that I will research soon. Meanwhile, anyone with insights into the bee mysteries is requested to email me at


2 thoughts on “Insect Mysteries: Bees and caterpillar

  1. Andrew,
    This is the caterpillar of the laurel sphinx moth. It closely resembles tomato hornworm, a pest that devours tomato plants and other nightshades. The very similar tobacco hornworm is also found on such plants. However, this individual is a closely related species, the laurel sphinx moth, so large in its winged form that it’s often mistaken for a hummingbird. I have not found any websites that refer to it as a pest, although the larvae feed on lilac, privet, poplar, and ash.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s