By Kyle Jarvis, Keene Sentinel Staff
(Tuesday, August 6, 2013, Keene Sentinel)
In a small room on the third floor of a downtown Keene building, there’s a world of creepy-crawlies that boggles the mind and inspires wonder.
This is the caterpillar lab.
It’s packed with upright screened baskets and plastic containers, each housing several dozen caterpillars roaming or lounging about tree and plant branches.
Samuel P. Jaffe, an environmental education major at Antioch University New England, has always had an affinity for insects — specifically, caterpillars, he said.
“My parents would find caterpillars crawling around the kitchen floor when I was a kid because I would bring them in from outside,” he said. “I’ve been raising caterpillars all my life.”
Now, Jaffe, 30, has found a way to share his passion with others. He created what he calls “the caterpillar lab,” a traveling show of sorts in which he brings his photographs of caterpillars, along with live specimens, to places in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Recently, the BBC took notice of Jaffe’s work, and plans to feature it in an upcoming documentary.
People often ask Jaffe, “Why should I care about caterpillars?” He says they’re important because of their place in the food chain, feeding on plants, and providing a food source for other animals.
In May, he rented a small room on Main Street. There, he and two friends he’s hired raise and look after the thousands of caterpillars. When they turn into butterflies or moths, he usually releases them where he found them as caterpillars. He keeps those that only live a short time.
Most Saturdays, they bring a handful of the critters to show at the Farmers’ Market of Keene on Gilbo Avenue, and the response has been beyond anything Jaffe imagined, he said.
“There’s this weird, universal interest,” he said. “Grandparents, kids … by the end of the show, everybody is enthralled. I get a lot of joy being able to show people these things.”
“These things” include the cecropia, a hardy, bright green, accordion-bodied caterpillar with orange, blue, yellow and red spines sticking out of its back.
There’s also the spicebush swallowtail caterpillar, a cartoonish thing that evolved to make itself look like a snake to ward off would-be predators. The reason behind the adaptation? Certain birds eat these caterpillars, but avoid snakes. If, in a quick glance at the caterpillar, the bird determines it’s a snake, the caterpillar survives.
“It’s really interesting because it gives us insight to the way a bird perceives the world … interpreting what that bird sees quickly.”
The decorated emerald caterpillar is a tiny thing that plucks petals from flowers it frequents, spins a bit of silk and attaches those petals to its back to disguise itself and hide from predators.
And then there’s the monkey slug caterpillar, which looks like something that should live deep in the ocean. Barely the size of a dime, it’s flatter than other caterpillars and sports several prominent stocky limb protrusions that make it look more like a spider than a caterpillar.
All of his specimens are native to New England.
“The disbelief (over that) made me sort of realize I had all these secrets about these insects that the general public didn’t know, and that I could bring to them.”
Jaffe, originally from Newton, Mass., earned a biology degree from Brown University before spending time working on a study at Harvard University that examined interactions between ants and caterpillars. He used to take pictures of caterpillars just to document the different species he found. But now he uses them to educate, and it’s taken off.
He’s had gallery shows at Boston Children’s Museum, and currently has one at MIT. Locally, his photography can be seen in places such as Brewbakers on Main Street.
But that wasn’t enough for Jaffe, who said he got bored and wanted to get back into raising caterpillars as he’d done when he was a kid.
“I’m just fascinated by the natural world,” he said. “If it’s outside and doing things, I’m interested. What’s kept me going is this idea that other people really don’t know that these things are here, and the power of showing them they’re here is unique.”
Jaffe said he’s already had people come back to see his show, thinking maybe they’ll see a different caterpillar than before. With up to 80 different species in his collection at any given time, it’s a likely possibility.
Between Jaffe’s website, spjaffe.com, where samples of photography can be seen, and the caterpillar lab’s Facebook page, Jaffe has put himself and his work out there for the world to see. In fact, the BBC recently contacted him about his work and asked if he wanted to take part in a documentary the British broadcaster is filming about survival. A crew met with Jaffe for the first time Monday.
Jaffe says none of this would be possible without the help of his two friends and fellow Antioch students, Monica S. Foley, a recent graduate, and Jesse Varga.
Foley majored in environmental studies with a focus on teaching high school science, and approached Jaffe about helping him out, believing she could gain valuable experience for her career.
“I’ve learned so much about the world of insects, but also I’ve really enjoyed working with the public and gotten insight into what people are most fascinated by,” she said. “There’s usually something that draws them in, and that’s been the most fun for me to find out what that is, and that it’s different for each person.”
Jaffe hopes to create something sustainable out of the caterpillar lab one day so he might support himself through it, although he’s still not sure how, he said.
One of his goals is to create new curriculum for young students, he said. Studying caterpillars that were purchased from a laboratory and raised on “synthetic mush” just doesn’t cut it, Jaffe said.
“We have native habitats right outside this building, with caterpillars eating native foods,” he said in his lab Monday. “It’s a tool in building curriculum, and there’s huge untapped potential there, so I’d like to have a definite impact on that.”
Jaffe and his traveling caterpillar show will next be at the Farmers’ Market of Keene on Gilbo Avenue Saturday, Aug. 17 at 9 a.m.
He’ll also have a show at Tower Hill Botanic Gardens in Boylston, Massachusetts, on August 25.