At this time of year, even here in southern Arizona, I am always a bit surprised to find insect activity. Imagine my shock then at finding a caterpillar on my living room floor today. It was a familiar species, but still a bit early I think.
Tucson is landscaped with a plethora of ornamental fan palms, and it is from these trees that my caterpillar came. Known as the “palm flower moth” or “palm budworm,” depending on its life stage, Litoprosopus coachella is a frequent home invader in urban areas.
The mature caterpillars (roughly 25 millimeters in length) crawl off the tree to find a suitable place to spin a cocoon, and this sometimes takes them indoors. High winds will also dislodge them by peeling bracts off the trunk of the tree and sending them flying across the yard and against buildings. Any attached caterpillars will fly away with those botanical missles.
Despite their abundance, and appetite for the blooms of their host plant, the caterpillars are generally considered more of a nuisance than a bona fide pest. They may do minor damage to carpets once they get indoors and chew off fibers to incorporate into their silken cocoon.
The caterpillars are not terribly attractive, being a dusty greenish or pinkish color, devoid of much hair, and can be mistaken for a beetle grub at first glance. Look at the head. The two tiny spots near the corner of its mouth are one set of eyes. Most caterpillars are nearly blind, though, relying on tactile and chemical cues to navigate their world.
The remainder of the head capsule, that round, hardened area at the front, is filled mostly with muscles to operate the jaws. What jaws they are, too! The first time I found one of these, I made the mistake of trying to simply pick it up. I got a nasty nip out of it, and my reflexes sent the poor creature flying across the room. Ouch! Gila woodpeckers and northern mockingbirds are not as easily dissuaded as I, and feed heavily on these larvae.
Unfortunately, this insect does not redeem its appearance much through metamorphosis. The adult moth is equally dull and drab. Well, I suppose beggars (for signs of spring and the company of other animals) can’t be choosers, at least not in February.