Caterpillar in the honeysuckle

Posted: Friday 28 June 2013
by Kate Bradbury

Last week, while enjoying a rare moment sitting in the garden, I caught sight of a movement out of the corner of my eye.

Honeysuckle. Photo by Anthony Hall.

Last week, while enjoying a rare moment sitting in the garden, I caught sight of a movement out of the corner of my eye.

It was a tiny pink caterpillar, abseiling down a length of silk from the honeysuckle to the ground. I assumed it was searching for a bit of earth to bury itself into, before pupating into a moth, but it landed on a plank of wood instead.

I picked it up and took a minute to photograph it for identification, before popping it on to a bit of earth. I regularly see mint moths (Pyrausta aurata), and caterpillars of the small yellow underwing (Panemeria tenebrata) and angle shades (Phlogophora meticulosa) in my garden, but this was a new one for me.

There seem to be far fewer moths and caterpillars in my garden this year. When the blue tits and great tits came in search of food for their young, there didn’t seem to be any caterpillars at all. The blue tits took aphids from my plants, while the great tits took advantage of the soft suet and insect treats I put out for them. I’m not sure if either nest was successful – I’ve not seen any fledglings.

Caterpillars make the perfect food for baby birds. They’re soft and, therefore, easy to digest, and also rich in protein and full of water. But the cold start to the year put so many things on hold, apparently including the abundance of caterpillars.

I put the photo of my tiny pink caterpillar on iSpot, then impatiently asked Twitter to name it. The fact that it was abseiling from honeysuckle was a great clue – it was identified as the twenty-plume moth (Alucita hexadactyla), which breeds in honeysuckle.

This micromoth is fairly nondescript as an adult, and I’ve certainly seen prettier caterpillars. It’s common and fairly widespread, but I’m proud to have it breeding in my garden. We can’t do anything about the weather, or encourage moths to breed when it’s too cold, but we can all ensure that we grow the right plants in our gardens, and provide moths with a habitat for procreation.

Some caterpillars will be eaten by baby blue tits or hedgehogs, while others will pupate into adults and be eaten by bats. A small proportion will mate and lay eggs, to continue the cycle year after year, catching gardeners’ eyes as they abseil from plants to pupate in the ground.

Thank you to Anthony Hall, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for supplying the beautiful honeysuckle image. Read his Kew blog here.

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oldchippy 29/06/2013 at 12:51

Hi Kate our Honeysuckle has been covered with flowers this year and bumblebees, white tail mostly,they are pulling the flowers off to get to the nectar.I haven't seen any caterpillars as we get lot of birds in the borders.

Richard Jones 29/06/2013 at 21:44

Nondescript! Pah! This is one of the prettiest little moths in the garden. It also holds the record for having the greatest number of wings of any insect — 24 of them. Despite its 'common' name, it actually has 24 plumes, each based around one of the usual 6 reinforcing veins in its four wings. At rest it fans out the plumes into a delicate semicircle, beautifully mottled with a series of undulating chevrons. Lovely!

Daisy16 05/09/2013 at 17:03

Help, my honeysuckle is being destroyed by orange-brown hairy caterpillars. What can I do?