Living and learning with Nature: Experiences from home

In the fourth part of the series on ecological living, the author describes how her home was invaded by the moth caterpillars.

Part 4: The plague of the ‘asuras’

Lesson learnt: None yet for we don’t know from where or rather how so many caterpillars descended on us!

In the second part of the series, I described how the Muplis beetles had invaded our home. As if we didn’t have enough on our plates with the beetles turning up every year. For a few seasons we had the added joy of seeing caterpillars contend with the Muplis for the top spot of insects we never wanted to see again. And these are not butterfly caterpillars, which I discussed in the third part of the series…but moth caterpillars.

The year we congratulated ourselves on successfully controlling the Muplis, is when it started raining ‘asuras.’ I do not mean the mythological characters but, as I learnt much later — the caterpillar of the Asura conferta (Nepita conferta), commonly known as the footman moth. Like the influx of the Muplis, these too started small. We found the odd moth caterpillar on the diwan, floor and bed cover.

Having learnt our lesson, we immediately looked up at our ceiling but nothing caught our eye. Just weather-worn underside clay tiles, some of which had turned dark due to moisture transfer (from the leaf mulch on top). However, within a short time, it started raining caterpillars of different sizes! We quickly abandoned our summer quarters — the Mangalore-tiled side of our home for our winter quarters, that is, the hollow-clay block vaulted side.

Looking for help and home remedies

Once more began the frantic quests for information — online on Google, checking with the odd friend who lived in a tiled-roof house and so on. A couple of them did mention caterpillars falling from roof tiles and were surprised that we hadn’t faced the problem in our 12-odd years of living under a tiled roof. Also, unlike our experience, the numbers they mentioned seemed more manageable.

Read more: My family and other insects: The perils of ecological living

We tried all the home remedies we had attempted with the Muplis beetles. These included cleaning the roof tiles as a precautionary measure; smoking the house; and spraying the underside and top of the roof tiles with a mix of kerosene, an organic compound and garlic juice. We had read somewhere that would help.

During the peak of the ‘asura’ rain, our kitchen resembled the lab of a crazy scientist as depicted on cartoons and TV shows. Pods of garlic in various stages of being crushed, various bottles holding eco-friendly pesticides, more-precious-than-gold kerosene (since one could no longer buy it just about anywhere, anymore), various brushes for dabbing and, a garden sprayer, with the ever-present smell of garlic and kerosene in the air. All in all, not a good time to visit our home or live in it. 

The ‘rain’ of moth caterpillars

moth caterpillar
The author’s home has harboured many different species of insects. Pic: Krupa Rajangam

This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I finally had enough and threw in the towel and called in the professionals. They smoke-bombed our home and soon enough hundreds of caterpillars started wriggling out of our roof tiles (on top), from every nook and corner, falling everywhere. The caterpillar rain inside our home had now shifted outside.

Read more: How Chanakya mangrove forest was destroyed, despite extensive legal protections

For days afterwards, we avoided going anywhere near our summer quarters. A closer inspection of any black patch along the edge of our roof would likely turn out to be a huddle of dozens of caterpillars. We survived but, by the time the plague ended, I was no longer green, both as an eco-warrior and inexperienced, as far as insects were concerned.

Humans on earth — eight billion. Insects — 10 quintillion. The math is clear. I just wish the entire 10 quintillion didn’t see my home as an insect haven and instead spread the joy of their existence more widely. Yet, the harsh reality is that we humans are largely responsible for their population decline, year by year. 

The colonial connection

On a more cheerful note, the moth supposedly carries the name ‘asura’ due to colonial-period entomological note-taking. Field-based researchers in the early 1900s had recorded that this particular caterpillar loved damp areas as it feasted on moss. Presumably, our north-facing tiled roof had a lot of moss by then, thanks to the social forestry trees continuing to shed their bounty on it, leaving our tiles perennially damp. 

The researchers of the 1900s also recorded children suffering during caterpillar season, as its hair caused an allergic reaction. This fact reminded me of my childhood days; of seeing these caterpillars huddled in damp corners and suffering an itchy rash when I unknowingly brushed against one.

The colonial-period entomologists had further recorded a local belief (in Palakkad) that this ‘pest’ usually disappeared after the ‘asura samharam’ or ‘sura samharam’ festival, which is celebrated annually in November. I have observed this festival in villages in southern Tamil Nadu when Lord Murugan and the Asura Soorapadman are taken out in vibrant processions, and the killing is re-enacted with props.

The moth, unlike its caterpillar stage, is equally vibrant, pretty even, with striking orange and black stripes that catch the eye. Surprisingly though, it is not called a tiger moth, which honour is bestowed on another moth species altogether. That story is for another day.

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