Outside the Denver headquarters on North Capitol Hill, silk nets stretch through the trees. Journalists have reported small, green, worm-like creatures slithering around their necks, hanging from ceilings, rappelling off desks, and crawling over the innocent faces of colleagues on computer screens during Zoom meetings.
Outside, you can hear the rustle of the leaves of the creatures.
North Capitol Hill is not lonely. Readers also tracked down this acrobat to the Golden Triangle, Downtown and Civic Center Park.
During the week that Miller moths invaded homes and offices, these new creatures joined the insect attack, and we had questions.
Here's one: Is this the apocalypse?
Not so, according to Shiran Hershcovich,butterfly pavilionmanager of lepidopterists (i.e. butterflies and moths) who encouraged us to be optimistic that our ecosystem was thriving. (She was less sure about the apocalyptic implications of murdering the ravens that surrounded our building in winter, which she described as "sinister," butto inna history.)
We should be especially happy to see insects in this invertebrate-hostile world of fast cars, glass windows, and bright lights that confuse moths into thinking they're sailing to the stars when all they're doing is banging their heads against our reading lights.
Lepidopterists study the lives of butterflies and moths. Hershcovich began studying molecular biology and eventually delved into the world of invertebrates.
"I have now chosen to specialize in butterflies because of the power they have as a gateway to protect invertebrates," she said. “It's much harder to get people involved when I'm making cockroaches. Butterflies are great for that."
One of the things he likes about studying invertebrates is that we can do so muchFrom homeknow about them.
"Most of the insects around us are deeply underexposed," Hershcovich said. "I always call invertebrate science one of the last frontiers of science because we describe hundreds of new insect species every year, so we're just getting to know them."
We sent her pictures of the bugs that had invaded the office.
Based on the photos, she initially suspected they were cabbage caterpillars.
"It's basically the juvenile stage of a pretty normal-looking gray moth," she said. "But in the caterpillar stage, in addition to being cute, they're better known for eating crops like cabbage, kale, broccoli, everything in this general group of plants."
But then our scientific research went a little deeper and ruled that out.
Cabbage runners are usually on ground-level plants, not trees. Would there really be so many hanging from the treetops? After discussing the silk the caterpillars had spread across the canopy, Hershcovich changed his mind and decided that they were probably carbuncles, caterpillars found throughout Colorado that build webs and roam during the day to feed.
Are these creatures safe?
"The good news is that they're not dangerous," explains Hershcovich. "They're non-toxic. They are non-toxic. They can't hurt you. So they are just some of our friendly neighbors.
The caterpillars take the silk from a part of the body near the mouth, called the spinneret. From there they produce silk and then go up.
Moths that seem to have dozens of legs have only six with joints. The false legs just stand out and help balance them as they go up.
"The caterpillars are often very small and dependent on very specific plants," she said. “Therefore, clinging to edible plants, even during high winds and storms, is essential for their survival. These false legs help them cling tightly to plants, climb and defend themselves from predators."
Letting tracks in may not be the best idea.
Caterpillars are prolific breeders. They lay over a thousand eggs in their lifetime. Since they are easy to catch and eat, breeding is the main survival strategy of this species. No one wants thousands of caterpillars hatching from eggs there.
Their chances of surviving indoors for long periods of time are slim as their diet consists of leafy vegetables.
"They won't last long without food," she said. “The caterpillars are almost eating machines. I always like to joke that The Very Hungry Caterpillar is non-fiction. Caterpillars need a constant source of food to grow, survive and complete their life cycle.”
Curlers are eggs or caterpillars for most of their lives. They ultimately have a short lifespan like moths, a few weeks at most, in late spring and early summer.
When it comes to food, curlers are "generalities", she said. They eat fruit trees and some ornamental plants along with other plants.
"They have a way of sensing the world that is inaccessible to us humans," Hershcovich said. "So they detect scents and pheromones to find host plants and food."
Through echolocation, they emit sound waves and use them to detect the distance between where they are and a specific object.
"They're equipped to navigate really complex systems and do really powerful things," Hershcovich said. “And they still use technologies that are quite new to humans. Moths have extremely sophisticated echolocation and use radar that is still quite new to humanity. And moths have been using it not for thousands, but for millions of years.
Unlike Miller moths, which are diligent pollinators, curlers do not pollinate much. However, they play a vital role in the ecosystem and Hershcovich believes we should not kill them.
"The easiest thing would be to take them and let them do their thing," she said. “Once out of the ecosystem, they are able to nurture life as we know it, especially now in spring when the insects come out.
"We're also seeing a lot of other life forms emerge," she continued. “Nests are full of chicks that need a lot of fuel, which they find in insects that come out this time of year. They will nurture all kinds of wildlife that we would like to see in our backyards, parks and natural areas.”
The same goes for bees, butterflies and other insects.
"Invertebrates as a whole provide ecosystem services that are not only valued at billions of dollars a year, but are critical to our survival," she said. “They recycle the nutrients in our soil. They reproduce plants as pollinators and even contribute to the oxygen we breathe. So they are very important pieces of our giant Earth puzzle.
And the world of caterpillars is a mystery.
"There's still so much we don't know," Hershcovich said. "We're still trying to understand very basic things about insects."
What are they eating? Where did they go? What is the full life cycle? Are they aware? Do they have a sense of community?
Hershcovich wants to give the Denverans an opportunity to staycommunity of scientistsand collaborate in building our knowledge of invertebrates. The Butterfly Pavilion recruits butterfly watchers and community scientists to assist with research.
"People are growing curious about the natural world around them," said Hershcovich. “It can be used to expand our understanding of butterflies and moths and how they respond to a changing climate and the changing space around them. This way we can better plan to support them in the future.”