Caterpillar Appreciation 101

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Caterpillar Appreciation 101

by Brandi McFadden, JW Townsend Horticulturist

Sometimes we, as professional horticulturists, remember to stop and smell the roses, but forget to appreciate the ‘bugs and bunnies.’  Our job is to focus on the health of the landscape, especially the plants.  It can be hard to remember those bugs and bunnies are an integral part of the landscape when we find them devouring the plants we so diligently maintain.  We noticed a small damaged area on a male Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) last week.  The damage looked like classic caterpillar leftovers:

  • bare stems
  • silky web coating
  • dead leaf bits interspersed

The best treatment, in this case, is to cut out the dead area and make sure there is not a caterpillar invasion in progress.  I only found one industrious caterpillar and upon close inspection could not help but admire its adaptations.  A quick search of websites like and confirmed this was a Harris’ Three Spot (Harrisememna trisignata) caterpillar.

Food Preference for the Harris’ Three Spot:

  • Holly (Ilex spp.)
  • Willow (Salix spp.)
  • Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.)
  • Ash (Fraxinus spp.)

As with many insects, these caterpillars employ camouflage and mimic adaptions to hide from predators and pesky gardeners.  At first glance it looks like a bird dropping on a stem or leaf. This often fools common predators like birds. If a bird or person upsets the plant while the caterpillar is feeding, it begins to mimic the swinging movement of the branches and leaves.


There are numerous examples of other insects common to Albemarle County which exhibit clever mimic and camouflage adaptations.

  • The Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) moth mimics a hummingbird in appearance, flight habit, and food preference.
  • The Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) mimics bumblebees in a similar manner of flight and target nectar plants.
  • There are numerous leafhoppers (Stictocephala spp.) that have the body shape of the leaves they live among.

And the list goes on…

Chances are you looked right these insects and either missed them or dismissed them as something else. If you do spot one of these insects, take a moment to stop and appreciate.

Harris' Three Spot Adult
(Adult Harris’ Three Spot Moth)

Winterberry Damage from Caterpillar
(Damaged Winterberry by Harris’ Three Spot Moth)

Click Here to View Harris’ Three Spot Video


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