Nature Talks - pic1

Our Nature Talks author identified this caterpillar as the hickory tussock moth, which has this striking black-and-white appearance now, but turns into a brown and white moth.

A FEW DECADES ago I lived for a couple of years in Allentown, Pa. We rented a small brick house with an unusually large backyard in the middle of downtown. I decorated one of the rooms in black and white — a black square wooden table with black wooden chairs I got for free from the restaurant where I worked for a while. I covered the table with fabric in black-and-white check. A two-door cabinet got painted matte black and put in the room. Black-and-white curtains hung in the windows. A black-and-white pitcher from the scotch whisky brand with a black Scottish terrier and a White West Highland terrier on it sat on top of the cabinet. A black-and-white Marimekko dish set bought at Hess’s department store in the wane of its heyday was used in the room. There were a couple splashes of color for accent but you get the picture.

I wasn’t thinking of nature when I chose that color scheme. But a caterpillar walking across the picnic table the other day reminded me of that room. The small caterpillar was undulating its way along the length of the table. It was not more than an inch and a quarter long. It was quite white with large black dots evenly spaced along each side of its “spine” the entire length of its body. Two black antennae stuck straight up at each end. And black marks all evenly spaced appeared on either side of its body under the large black dots. Black legs just barely showed through white fuzz. I had never seen such a caterpillar before and admired from afar its truly balanced design.

Much of design mimics patterns in the natural world. If we think just about visual design, the textiles and patterns used know no bounds. Butterflies, honeycombs, zebras, leopards, tree bark, myriad flowers — natural things that have wound up woven into textiles are nearly infinite. The elegant spiraling design of the nautilus shell inspires many takeoffs from the natural design that finds its way into our human-made products.

But if you search “designs inspired from nature” on the internet, you come up with references to a very interesting aspect of natural design called “biomimetic design” or simply “biomimicry.” This use of nature to inspire technology and innovation moves way beyond the confines of appearance but adopts the entire way of being of an insect or a mammal or a natural feature like a waterfall and uses the design to innovate.

Velcro is a perfect example of biomimicry. Search and you will read about how the hook-and-loop fastener was thought up by Swiss engineer George de Mestral who noticed the burrs that stuck to his pants and his hunting dog’s hair. According to an article on the site, “An Idea That Stuck,” de Mestral studied the burrs under a microscope and voila! — the idea of Velcro was born. Apparently the Eastgate Center in Zimbabwe adapted the construction of termite mounds. These tall piles of mud are deceptively simple on the outside yet inside are comprised of an incredibly complex maze of tunnels, some of which help with air exchange — the Eastgate Center does not have conventional heating or air conditioning, but utilizes termite technology for these purposes.

We know that waterfalls have been replicated to harness power to mills. And of course perhaps the most obvious example of biomimicry of all is the airplane. What more dramatic tribute to — and ironically something of a danger to (and vice versa) — the birds we know and love?

I identified that caterpillar that was making its way across my picnic table as the hickory tussock moth (Lophocampa caryae). Despite its name, the caterpillar is not exclusive to hickory trees — according to, they feed “on a wide array of hardwood trees” including birch, quaking aspen, basswood, and black locust. “The caterpillars may strip the occasional tree but in general they do little harm to the forest,” the Maine Forest Service website says. They are typically not numerous but “occasionally the numbers will increase to where they are noticeable to the general public,” the site says.

They may do little harm to trees but apparently it is a good thing I did not touch it. Both their hairy bodies and their fuzzy cocoons — which overwinter in leaf litter or under bark — can cause a rash to those who are sensitive to it. The resulting moth emerges from the cocoon and flies around in June and July. Interestingly, as striking as the black-and-white caterpillar is, the resulting moth is brown with mottling of brown and white on it wings.

All of this shows how a simple caterpillar making its way across my picnic table can for some inspire innovation and creativity, and to me bring back memories of a black-and-white room of the past.


Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. Email her at