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What Is It?

by Mary Galioto

My two girls were digging under the tree on the side of our house while I furiously attempted to remove tangles of creeping charlie from our yard. And I heard my older daughter shout, “MOM! You’ve GOT to see this!”

There are many mom-pleas I ignore. “Mom, she’s hitting me,” is a biggie. “Mom, I need WATERRRRrrrrrrr,” is another. Seriously. Step out from your sister’s arm-reach and get yourself some water. You’re 6.

But I didn’t ignore this one. And what I “got to see” was unreal. It was an entire oak leaf dangling from a branch covered in close to 30 tiny caterpillars.

And then I did what any red-blooded American would do: I took a picture of it with my iPhone and posted it on Facebook with the caption “What is THIS?” I got a wild selection of comments with my favorite being, “Why, this is a horrifying nightmare come to life.”

I also got a bit of useful advice which was to call the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Mercer County, a research-based educational program based in Lawrenceville. The “Extension” helps residents make informed decisions regarding quality of life, community and environment. Located right next to the Trenton Farmer’s Market, the office is staffed by several professionals and volunteers including the Master Gardeners of Mercer County horticultural volunteers, who have been extensively trained by faculty and staff of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, Rutgers University, and by horticultural experts.

IMG_2913The call-in operator instructed me to put the caterpillars with their leaf into a bag and drive it over. “Girls, get in the car. We’re going on an adventure!” The office has a specific receptionist counter for sample deliveries and several Master Gardeners whisked away our baggie to inspect it.

While we waited, we spent nearly an hour with Barbara Bromley, The Mercer County Horticulturalist. She offered such amazing attention and educational guidance to my girls about insects including allowing the girls into the back lab to view the caterpillars under magnification.

IMG_2914What is it? They think they are yellow-necked caterpillars (“Datana ministra” for you scientists). And it is not something to be worried about. Unless you’re worried about being near creepy crawly stuff.

More Master Gardener news upcoming. Stay tuned!



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