Toasted To Perfection

Wherein I Light Up A Voracious Swarm of  Tent Caterpillars With a Flaming Can of Whoop-Ass.

When viewed without an  understanding of their dining habits or that larger context of the apocalyptic damage left in their wake (in this case, just off camera), this tight little cluster of tent caterpillars looks almost pastoral, kind of serene, maybe even beautiful. Such cute, fuzzy little creatures. Not!

I’m uneasy with the notion of using poisons in my garden, uneasy about their manufacturers and that powerful corporate temptation to fib about the actual science of a product for the sake of its bottom line. Unfortunately, this phenomenon has proven true again and again, recently, in the name of market share and profits, and almost always lubricated by some cutesy, animated, bad-bug TV commercial with smiling, high-fiving fake-homeowners and promises that ‘you’ll be the envy of your neighborhood.’ I’ve seen enough of the unintended consequences of many garden products to be leary. I mean, doesn’t it stand to reason that if I poison whatever little out-of-control critters are currently chewing up some beautiful, beloved plant in my garden, that I will also be poisoning the songbirds I’ve worked so diligently to attract, those very garden partners that serenade me with songs and generally feed on such bugs, raise their families on them, and most of the time keep their populations in balance?


This past week I had to (reluctantly), open up a can of whoop-ass on a voracious family of tent-caterpillars that had crossed the line, having grown far past the ability of any songbird family to reign them in.

As you can see from the video, they had begun to make a damaging spectacle of themselves that no reasonable gardener could continue to ignore and rather than let the problem grow or resort to that tempting siren song of ‘Better Living Through Chemistry,’ I opted for an orchard ladder, my trusty Felco pruners and a small, propane torch. Game on, Larvae Breath!

Click to Enlarge and see all the crispy detail.

Ultimately, I did end up needing to cut out one small section of branch (about 18 inches long), that was so net-tented and chewed up that I thought it probably beyond recovery, but with the rest of the tree I simply gave a good toasting to each cluster of caterpillars, believing that in the long run the tree would recover faster, dropping those burned needles in time and then regrowing new ones in their place.


And yes, I was tempted to taste one of these barbecued little morsels, just for aesthetic and educational purposes, and yet, somehow resisted. Hmmmmmmm. I wonder, might you have snacked on one with me if given the option?

10 thoughts on “Toasted To Perfection”

  1. I have mixed feelings. Even though I have participating in “killing them with fire,” to see photos of their death makes me feel cruel and insensitive to life. A terrible death that is necessitated for the “greater good?” There must be a lesson in there somewhere.

    1. I agree with your sense of the insensitivity of this, Ed and feel it too. I honestly considered several times just scrapping this post altogether. I think that is why I used the comic-book effect and the higher pitch voice on the video, to give it some sense of remove from reality and make it less of a visual affront. And the batch of caterpillars that are being dispatched are conveniently kept in the shadows as well, again trying to make it all a little less blatant. It is an act of arrogance to take life so completely and assuredly. And yet, standing at some safe, ‘I don’t want to have to look at it’ distance and using canned poisons would be a much slower death for those same caterpillars, and they would then necessarily work their destructive way through the rest of the garden’s ecosystem, to boot, affecting the lives of any creatures that came in contact with them. It was a vote for doing the grittier thing at the expense of having to be an active participant. It was hand to hand combat vs using video-game-savvy children sitting in a dark room to trigger death with a drone strike for you. Better to my mind to get your hands dirty, to be uncomfortable, to feel the disturbance your choices are creating within the force than to choose for the solution that actually authors even more problems for each unwitting life form downstream of your act.

      1. Thoughtful response, David. I share your thinking. Thank you for sharing, especially the context for a lesson on sensitivity. Our society needs to reflect on your rational for including this post.

  2. Let me start by saying how much your photography has brightened my days. Each piece is uniquely heartwarming and rewarding.
    In regarding to this video I must share with you my mixed feelings as well, especially after reading your response to Ed. Unlike Ed’s point of view, the actual burning didn’t bother me as much as the combination of the visual and voice. Though I understand that your intention when you used the comic book effect was to “give it some sense of remove from reality and make it less of a visual affront”, my imaginative vision was of a nutty, scary, cruel professor. In other words, nothing close to what I imagine you as a sensitive and very kindhearted person.
    I guess through our personal experiences we view and hear things differently, but I do very much appreciate your rational thoughts and intentions.
    In my personal opinion your still photos tell your clear message of having to rid of the fuzzy enemies without harsh chemicals.
    Have you ever tried spraying vinegar? It works with other garden enemies.

    1. Dear Sharone, I am touched by your kind words, and by the effort that went into your very thoughtful comments. Thank you! Of course it shakes me a bit to know that I have created this sense of unease in you and in Ed Boyatt, who, by the way was a beloved teacher and mentor to me back in high school. If this topic makes you and him uneasy then surely it makes others who have not written, uneasy, as well. I’ve not tried vinegar on caterpillars. I do sometimes use it on weeds. As for the efficacy of vinegar over say, fire, it may seem a bit less horrifying to avoid the smoke and crackle, but I’m not certain that it would be any kinder a death to slowly succumb to the acids of a vinegar bath than it would be to die almost instantly in an overwhelming rush of flames. It might prove to be a sort of ‘Would you rather die as a salad or as a crouton?’ equivalence. Death for the larval hordes will be the ultimate result, either way.

      Your insights on the comic book video effect and the shifted voice are invaluable and totally make sense. I can tell you that I began by using a filter that made me sound more like Darth Vadar, dropping my voice into a much lower and more sinister range, but that seemed even creepier to my ear. All in all, I’m coming to the conclusion that my attempts to address the problem of infestation eradication haven’t exactly hit their mark, and I apologize for any unnecessary discomfort that has created for you and others.

      Finally, though, I am both fascinated and delighted that this discussion is taking place at all. We who garden must make decisions constantly about what gets to live, what gets amputated, what gets smashed and what gets dug out and thrown upon the compost heap. We take on the roles of ‘gods’ (spelled with a little ‘g’), rather unflinchingly when we begin to shape our surroundings into gardens. Not everything stirs the pot of our comfort/discomfort like this mass death topic does because what we are doing is often prettier, or at least less in-your-face. I’m grateful that you would make the time to weigh in as thoughtfully as you have.

      I hope more of you will feel free to weigh in where you feel the need.

      1. Dear David,
        Thank you for understanding my thoughts. My vinegar bath actually works well as a preventing remedy. Most insects just don’t care for the aroma, so they simply relocate to a nearby location that is scent-appealing.
        I never quite thought of my solution as a death solution, but see your point.
        Even in nature the stronger wins, so if you feel as if you have taken the role of ‘god’ in your garden, I simply would rather think of it as the overseeing eagle, who can at any point of its soar, can swoop down and remove the weakest kind (weeds or caterpillars) out of the way.
        I don’t know you well, but have a strong sense that you have much kindness and love in your heart for all living things.

  3. David, What I am really shocked by is that you stood on a ladder and directed fire at a conifer. Dangerous! I had roasted grasshopper tacos in Mexico City. There definitely is an allure to eating insects, but you’re going to need some garlic and butter, or salsa to get them down.
    How much helium did you have to inhale to get your voice so high???

    1. Daniel, my friend, I know that I may have let many people down in acting so rash. Maybe the helium went to my head. And as for the culinary aspects of eating insects, I thought about that, thought about that “You are what you eat” notion and felt certain that toasted caterpillars which had been dining on nothing more than conifer needles would inevitably taste more like conifer needles than chicken. And that gave me all the perspective I needed to put off tasting them until a later date.

  4. Holy moly! While you may be a responsible flame thrower, some folks who might happen upon this posting may not be. I am concerned about the other half of our beautiful state (western Washington) burning up – please add a cautionary note to your caterpillar adventures. Thanks.

    Worry wart…..

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