The Umstead Coalition 
Celebrating Umstead State Park since 1934!

Eastern Tent Caterpillar

04/15/2020 11:43 AM | Billy Drakeford (Administrator)

I am not saying I should have been referred to a child psychologist for troubled children, but looking back, my propensity to massacre scores of innocent creatures could have been worthy of a visit.  I truly liked eastern tent caterpillars and shivered in delight at how they felt walking up my arms. This, however, did not stop me and my friends from climbing trees with our bb guns, setting up sniper positions and trying to blow away every caterpillar that came out of the nest. 

I stopped sharing these childhood stories with my wife, as they seemed to trouble her.  Her stories of her European childhood seem to be straight out of the Sound of Music, which frankly troubles me.

The good news is that during my insect safaris, I did learn quite a bit about these tent caterpillars as a boy.  I learned that they hatched from a waterproof, hard-black case that encircled the twigs.      

Once they hatch, the caterpillars immediately set out to build the familiar web that you see every spring.  This web continually expands to house the growing caterpillars and away from the feces dump in the middle.  There is some evidence that inside the nest can be 2 to 3 degrees higher than outside temperatures, which is important in early spring.

Their hatching always coincided with the leaves coming out, which makes sense because it is then when the leaves are the most nutritious.  This is important because caterpillars must grow as fast as possible to avoid bird predation, parasitoid wasps, and other bug predators. 

After dissecting one nest, I noticed the tree branches had lines of silk that caterpillars left on the way out and back.  Later, I read that caterpillars returning from more nutritious feeding areas somehow broadcast this fact in their returning silk lines, as more caterpillars would follow these lines over the others.  That is nature cool.

After molting five times, the caterpillars disperse in solitary journeys to find a safe place under boards, beneath bark, or some other protected nook to start the next step in their journey, the pupa stage.  This is the stage where they are in a cocoon and one of nature’s most magical transformation occurs; that of a caterpillar becoming a moth or butterfly.    

These little moths are not long for the world; their only task is to mate and lay eggs for the next season.  Perhaps having such a short adult life is for the best, as Aldo Leopold once said “Adult hood is merely a dilution of the essentials, worn down by the trivialities of living. (Paraphrased)

On a side note, my son seems to have the same proclivity to go on insect safaris as well.  Once he burns it out of his system as I did, the boy might become the nature nerd his father became.  I can only hope.  Enjoy this video of a shedding tent caterpillar 

Know more to see more,

Ranger Billy

The Umstead Coalition

We are dedicated to preserving the natural integrity of William B. Umstead State Park and the Richland Creek Corridor.


The Umstead Coalition is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.