The Oak Tree Web — Butterflies, Moths, Caterpillars, Birds, Leaves & Seeds

By Linda Wiggen Kraft

A web of life is a cycle where all parts are connected and needed to keep it whole. All parts support each other. We don’t often see the web of oak tree connections when we look at the beautiful oaks in our urban, suburban and rural landscapes. The butterflies and moths that lay eggs in oak trees are seldom seen. The caterpillars that live in oak trees are seldom seen. The parent birds that find these caterpillars to feed their babies are seldom seen. The bird babies that are feed these caterpillars are seldom seen in their nests. We don’t see even more that an oak tree web contains; the carbon it captures, the absorption of rain so it doesn’t wash away the soil, habitat for many other insects and much more.

Oak trees are the foundation of the cyclical web that supports life of the most species of butterflies, moths, caterpillars, insects and birds. There are 534 species of lepidoptera* (butterflies and moths) whose caterpillars eat the leave of oaks to survive, but do not damage the tree. The cycle begins when adult butterflies and moths lay eggs. Those eggs turn into caterpillars that are food for baby birds. Ninety six percent of adult birds feed their babies caterpillars for the protein, fat and other nutrients only caterpillars provide. Adult birds make hundreds of trips between food sources and babies each day so the babies can survive. Seeds don’t provide the needed nutrients for growing birds in the nest. They need caterpillars for food. Not all caterpillars are bird food though, many complete the cycle of metamorphosis of egg, caterpillar, pupa (chrysalis and cocoon) and adult butterfly and moth.

Although we seldom see with our own eyes the details and depth of the oak tree web, we can create landscapes that support all parts of this chain of connections.  First, if there are no native oaks in your landscape plant one or more. Second, surround new and old oaks with a bed of ground cover large enough to catch the fallen leaves and hide them once they are on the ground. Pachysandra is my favorite ground cover that hides leaves, doesn’t grow into vines that climb trees and has roots that don’t crowd out other perennials and annuals, Third, don’t blow or rake away the leaves. These leaves are where the caterpillars and pupae overwinter. If they are taken away the caterpillars won’t be there for the birds in the spring. The fallen leaves will also decay and provide nutrients for the soil, plants and decomposer insects. Fourth, don’t use pesticides in the garden or spray into the trees. These pesticides kill the insects needed for this web and break the chain of connections.

Learn to love insects that are part of the oak tree web. There is great diversity in the colors, shapes and forms of butterflies, moths and caterpillars. My friend Christine, created a mandala** with drawings of some of the many caterpillars that live in oaks. The variety of shapes and colors is immense. There is great beauty in these life forms that make up the oak tree web. Seeing that beauty helps us appreciate the living web of life we are part of.

*visit www.nwf.org/nativeplantfinder for a list of best native plants that support insects and birds.

** visit https://creativityforthesoul.com/blog  for closeups of Christine’s oak leaf and caterpillar mandalas drawings and identification.

Linda Wiggen Kraft is a landscape designer who creates holistic and organic gardens. She offers Creativity Journeys, Mandala and Nature Journey workshops. More info is at her website and blog at: www.CreativityForTheSoul.com Call her at 314 504-4266.