Screenshot of the black-spotted prominent moth caterpillar (Dasylophia anguina) – another in Jaffe's photo series documenting New England caterpillars. (Photo: Sam Jaffe/The Caterpillar Lab)
The caterpillar world is filled with some wonderfully wild, wacky and weird-looking creatures. But few of us take time to notice these beastly beauties crawling, munching and pupating all around us.
Sam Jaffe, founder of The Caterpillar Lab, hopes to change that.
"Caterpillars are remarkable," he says. "They hooked me because they're all these little characters. Some have defensive adaptations like false eye spots that make them look like snakes. Others mimic twigs or grass blades, and some have inflatable horns or tails. They grab your attention with their odd charisma. At The Caterpillar Lab we really want to surprise people with what they can find right around where they live."
Catching the bug
Located in Marlborough, New Hampshire, The Caterpillar Lab (TCL), focuses on boosting appreciation for the vast variety of bizarre and beautiful caterpillars in New England via live educational programs, research initiatives, and film and photography projects.
Most importantly, though, TCL is Jaffe's way of sharing his lifelong love affair with the creepy-crawlies he discovered as a child while exploring the outdoors growing up near Boston.
"My parents tell me I was bringing in caterpillars from the backyard when I was 3 years old and soon started raising them into butterflies and moths," he says. "I always wanted caterpillars to be a part of my life and told people from an early age that I was going to be an entomologist (insect researcher). But how it evolved into The Caterpillar Lab is something that happened almost as a surprise."
In fact, Jaffe started out pursuing his initial dream of becoming an entomologist. He majored in evolutionary biology at Brown University with an eye toward getting his doctorate, but one day while working in an entomology research lab, he realized that life behind the scenes wasn't for him.
After graduating in 2008, Jaffe decided to go back to his roots while he figured out his next move. He'd always loved photographing the natural world, so he grabbed his camera and headed out into the fields and forests to photograph all the impressive caterpillar species in New England. In no time he was exhibiting his vivid caterpillar close-ups at local galleries.
"The photographs showed me how much I loved – and how much the public loved – learning about these creatures and hearing their stories," he says. "It quickly shifted as I began throwing photography openings, and instead of wine and cheese I'd bring live caterpillars. Those became my first outreach programs. From that moment on, it became clear this was something valuable I could offer."
This image of a white-dotted prominent moth caterpillar (Nadata gibbosa) is part of Jaffe's photo series documenting New England's most charismatic and colorful caterpillars. (Photo: Sam Jaffe/The Caterpillar Lab)
You can check out more of Jaffe's work at his photo site..
In 2011, he put together a six-day live caterpillar exhibit with the Boston Children's Museum. Encouraged by the response, he launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2013 to raise funds for a full summer of caterpillar programming. At the time he was pursuing a master's degree in environmental education at Antioch University New England, so he enlisted the help of two fellow students. They rented space to raise caterpillars, dubbed it The Caterpillar Lab, and took their live show on the road across New England. They also spent time filming a caterpillar program with the BBC.
The following year, Jaffe rented a bigger space in Keene, New Hampshire, so he could breed even more caterpillars (which he usually releases back to the wild) and began offering open hours to the public. He hired additional staff, expanded his outreach efforts at museums, farmers markets and schools throughout the region, and became an official nonprofit group in 2015.
Since then, TCL has flown ever higher.
Transforming minds and hearts
Today, Jaffe raises thousands of caterpillars a year (about 400 species) and shares his passion for them wherever and however he can. It's a multipronged approach designed to catch the eye of everyone, from budding young scientists and teachers to artists and researchers.
"We have developed educational programs, we visit classrooms, lead workshops, take photographs and shoot video, assist in various caterpillar research projects going on at Harvard University and the University of Connecticut and have even helped out with dance productions centered around caterpillar defensive displays," he explains in an interview with Telegram.com.
Jaffe's biggest thrill is watching someone who may not appreciate caterpillars come around to his way of thinking – and sometimes even fall in love.
"There's a large group of people who assume they don't like caterpillars – they're afraid of them or think they're icky," he says. "But often those feelings aren't based on experience or reality. It's something people were told at some point in their lives – you don't like bugs – and they believe it. We find that really easy to overcome with a charismatic, colorful caterpillar eating and pooping and transforming in front of them. It helps quickly cast that aside."
For a dose of caterpillar charisma, check out this TCL video of tobacco hornworms eating a tomato.
Jaffe hopes to increase TCL's impact in the future, but not necessarily its size. "I'm not looking to become a giant insect museum or an Audubon-style organization, but I'd love to see The Caterpillar Lab help teachers across the world feel more comfortable working with native insects," he notes. "I'd like to see people in other places set up caterpillar programs like ours."
Additional plans include more open hours for the public and expanded outreach to those who've never considered attending a caterpillar program. One way to preach beyond the choir is by dispatching a mobile lab to meet potential caterpillar converts on their own turf. Jaffe is currently seeking funding for such a vehicle.
"My favorite kind of outreach isn't going to a venue or museum, but finding a street corner or park or downtown area where people of all sorts are going about their business and set up a guerrilla education program, a pop-up lab where you're meeting everybody and not just a filtered audience predisposed to visiting a museum," he says. "We want to show everyone that their garden, neighborhood or a nearby patch of weeds are places that hold a lot of value even though they might have overlooked them before."
For a deeper dive into such curiosities, check out this TCL video of stinging rose slug caterpillars.
Craving more caterpillars? Visit TCL's YouTube channel.