Sunday, November 10, 2013

Tractor Ted, the Wooly Bear Caterpillar: Part One

Way back in September, we were on our way home from one of the neighborhood parks when we found some Wooly Bear caterpillars along our trail. Because I'm secretly still a kid when it come to pets (yes, even caterpillars...and maybe another insect or two if I'm feeling REALLY brave), there was no way we were passing it up! But, I felt one would be lonely and didn't want to split up a family, so we took home two that were "together" (read: relatively near each other).

At first they both did their whole play dead shtick and sat peacefully on the leaves I had gathered them on. But about halfway home, one of two things happened: 1) they got totally freaked out and thought playing dead wasn't the way to go and that they seriously needed to get out of dodge by scrambling super past off the leaf or 2) they decided I was a super fun friend and they wanted to crawling all over the place. Either way, they were amovin'. Sadly, they hit the floor once or twice and one little guy didn't seem to fair all that well...or as I like to believe, he just wasn't feeling all that well from the start. We ended up "releasing" it back to the wild the next day. Lesson: bring caterpillars back home with some other form of carrying contraption.
playing dead
Anyway, back to the story. On the walk home, I googled Wooly Bears and found that they are very easily cared for and you can "raise" them to adulthood when they will wrap themselves into a cocoon and go through the chrysalis process, becoming an Isabella Tiger Moth. Cool! And what an experiment for Nolan!

The first habitat was pretty weak. It was a small ziplock style reusable container with a couple leaves in it. A day or two later, we decided he (no actual idea if it is a boy or girl, but "it" sounds so cold) needed a name...and a housing upgrade. Nolan decided his name should be Tractor Ted (after one of his books) and I was responsible for the habitat change. With some idea help of the same google article, I took an old child size shoebox and cut "windows" out of each side, the front and the top. I put clear contact paper on the front and sides, but then I realized it was too opaque once it was doubled up (so it was stuck to itself and not sticky on one side or another). So for the top, I just taped on some plastic wrap. Then I poked small air holes in all the "windows" and put a couple branches and some fresh leaves in. Every few days or so, we traded out yucky leaves for fresh ones from the area where we found him. We also added water by running our hand under a faucet and then flicking the water off our hands and on to the leaves. I suppose a spray bottle would have worked too. :)
top view
top/side-ish view
heading back to where we found Tractor Ted for some more leaves, etc.
picking clover
into the bag

So it is now November and little Tactor Ted still roams his home, but mostly just hunkers down under the leaves. After nearly two months of waiting for a cocoon, I decided it was time to re-visit my friend google for a time frameMan is it a good thing I did! Haha. We shouldn't be expecting a cocoon until NEXT SPRING! Ha! Apparently, Wooly Bears hibernate in the cold winter months before pretty much "unfreezing" and then they spin their cocoons. I also learned that they need the cold weather for them to go into hibernation! Cue habitat number three and location change.

My mom had an old glass fish bowl that was not being used and it was perfect. This time I walked down the path armed with everything I would need. Nolan was supposed to come too, but it was one of those mornings with a 3.5-year-old. You know the kind I'm talking about...and he "chose" to stay home. So, me, my rubber boots, two plastic bags, a spoon and a larger handled paper bag headed down the hill. I scooped up two bags of dirt to line the bottom of the bowl, a whole bunch of grass with the roots still connected, some dandelion greens and some new leaves and returned home for the renovation. 

Luckily by the time I returned home, Nolan was in a slightly better place and was ready and excited to help. We started by taking the decorative glass rocks out, but decided to leave the smaller ones in the bottom for a little extra layer of drainage since all the stuff I collected was quite wet (it is November in the NW, after all). Next we poured in the dirt, which included three teeny tiny new Earth Worm friends for Tractor Ted, followed by a layer of grass, some dandelion greens (again, like the grass, with as much root structure attached as possible to try and help it last longer...maybe?) and then leaves. Then we tried to place the sticks around so they weren't just laying on the bottom, to give him something to climb on. Lastly, we transferred Tractor Ted. I'm not sure, because I'm not fluent in Wooly Bear, but he seemed pretty stoked. As I don't like wasting things, I peeled off the taped-on plastic wrap from our previous habits, rubber banded it around the top of the fish bowl and cut the extra edges to clean it up a bit. And done!

picking out the glass rocks
dumping in the dirt
grass placement
sticks and leaves
checking out Tractor Ted
"put him right there"

"alright, buddy. done."
a side view of our new terrarium
He now lives out on our back patio in the proper environment and we have our fingers crossed that in a few months we'll get to see him spin a cocoon. Exciting! Stay tuned for an update...

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