Since we got the bees, our minds have turned to flowers. Not a huge imperative in the garden beforehand, but now an ex-vegetable patch has become a patch of native plants – grevilleas, a low-growing banksia, melaleucas, an eremophila, a midyin berry, all being linked up by a creeping myoporum. They’ve done well, and most of them, even the tiny ones, have flowered. The melaleucas with puffs of lilac and white, the eremophila with a startlingly pink pendulous flower. One of the grevilleas has powered ahead, thickening up quickly and taking a greater share of the garden, threatening to dominate with its thrusting stems covered in fleshy grey-green leaves and spidery red flowers.
This morning a blue-banded bee had found the melaleuca lilac puffs and was unmissable with its distinctive buzz – loud and persistent – around the flowers, darting in impulsively then backing off to hover and buzz. We noticed that the large grevillea was being badly eaten by something. I had thought that the bare tips of the stems were new growth, but in fact the leaves had been munched off. I saw one caterpillar, thin and camouflaged, the same width as the stem, similar yellowy colour, with a slight red stripe along its length. I picked it off and put it on a brick where I squashed it. Then I saw another one, then a much larger one, with its colours more pronounced in side bands of red and greeny-brown. It reared up when I reached down for it, curling back and threatening me with its tiny rounded head, but it too was consigned to the killing brick. Soon the brick was covered in squelch, and I was so inured to the killing that I was just squashing them with my gloves.
When the plant seemed free of its invaders I noticed that a couple had fallen on the ground. Squash. Next to them was a sort of small white leathery sac, like an egg but malleable. I squashed that too – it was clearly associated with the caterpillars – and a green substance oozed out of it. It was the colour of a baby rug, cute and pastel. Then I saw some brown segmented creatures wriggling around the base of the grevillea. Their shells were hard and crunchy, pointed at both ends, and they could have been cocoons except that they were very active. They wriggled menacingly, like extras in Alien, pointing their blind tips at me. They too had pastel-green insides when squashed, the astonishingly benign colour oozing out between the ugly brown segments. You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.
I had nearly the whole life cycle in front of me, from eggs in a sac, to needle-thin caterpillars, to large rearing-up caterpillars, to cocooned transition creatures. I was killing them all, knowing nothing of the caterpillar or its butterfly or their place in the ecosystem. All I knew was that they were stripping my grevillea, and I was fighting back.