Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Insects by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Insects by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Leaf-Rollers

Teacher's Story

dropcap image F we look closely at sumac leaves before they are aflame from autumn's torch, we find many of the leaflets rolled into little cornucopias fastened with silk. The silk is not in a web, like that of the spider, but the strands are twisted together, hundreds of threads combined in one strong cable, and these are fastened from roll to leaf, like tent ropes. If we look at the young basswoods, we find perhaps many of their leaves cut across, and the flap made into a roll and likewise fastened with silken ropes. The witch-hazel, which is a veritable insect tenement, also shows these rolls. In fact, we may find them upon the leaves of almost any species of tree or shrub, and each of these rolls has its own special maker or indweller. Each species of insect, which rolls the leaves, is limited to the species of plant on which it is found; and one of these caterpillars would sooner starve than take a mouthful from a leaf of any other plant. Some people think that insects will eat anything that comes in their way; but of all created animals, insects are the most fastidious as to their food.


Leaf-rollers in sumac, with diagram showing the fastening of the silk-stay-ropes.

Some species of leaf-rollers unite several leaflets together, while others use a single leaf. In the case of the sumac leaf-roller, it begins in a single leaf; but in its later stages, it fastens together two or three of the terminal leaflets in order to gain more pasturage. The little silken tent ropes which hold the folded leaves are well worth study with a lens. They are made of hundreds of threads of the finest silk, woven from a gland opening near the lower lip of the caterpillar. The rope is always larger where it is attached to the leaf than at the center, because the caterpillar crisscrosses the threads in order to make the attachment to the leaf larger and firmer. Unroll a tent carefully, and you may see the fastenings used in an earlier stage, and may even find the first turned-down edge of the leaf. However, the center of a leaf roller's habitation is usually very much eaten, for the whole reason for making its little house is that the soft-bodied caterpillar may eat its fill completely hidden from the eyes of birds or other animals. When it first hatches from the egg, it feeds for a short time, usually on the under side of the leaf; but when still so small that we can barely see it with the naked eye, it somehow manages to fold over itself one edge of the leaf and peg it down. The problem of how so small a creature is able to pull over and fold down or to make in a roll a stiff leaf is hard to solve. I, myself, believe it is done by making many threads, each a little more taut than the last. I have watched several species working, and the leaf comes slowly together as the caterpillar stretches its head and sways back and forth hundreds of times, fastening the silk first to one side and then to the other. Some observers believe that the caterpillar throws its weight upon the silk, in order to pull the leaf together; but in the case of the sumac leaf-roller, I am sure this is not true, as I have watched the process again and again under a lens, and could detect no signs of this method. Many of the caterpillars which make rolls, change to small moths known as Tortricids. This is a very large family, containing a vast number of species and not all of the members are leaf-rollers. These little moths have the front wings rather wide and more or less rectangular in outline. The entomologists have a pleasing fashion of ending the names of all of these moths with "ana;" the one that rolls the currant leaves is Rosana,  the one on juniper is Rutilana,  etc. Since many of the caterpillars of this family seek the ground to pupate and do not appear as moths until the following spring, it is somewhat difficult to study their complete life histories, unless one has well-made breeding cages with earth at the bottom; and even then it is difficult to keep them under natural conditions, since in an ordinary living room the insects dry up and do not mature.


A leaf of basswood cut and rolled by the basswood leaf-roller.

Comstock's Manual


The Leaf-Rollers

Leading thought—There are many kinds of insects which roll the leaves of trees and plants into tents, in which they dwell and feed during their early stages.

Method—This is an excellent lesson for early autumn when the pupils may find many of these rolled leaves, which they may bring to the schoolroom, and which will give material for the lesson. The rolls are found plentifully on sumac, basswood and witch-hazel.


1. What is the name of the trees and shrubs from which these rolled leaves which you have collected were taken?

2. Are more than one leaf or leaflet used in making the roll?

3. Is the leaf rolled crosswise or lengthwise? How large is the tube thus made?

4. Is the nest in the shape of a tube, or are several leaves fastened together, making a box-shaped nest?

5. How is the roll made fast? Examine the little silken ropes with a lens and describe one of them. Is it wider where it is attached to the leaf than at the middle? Why?

6. How many of these tent ropes are there which make fast the roll? Unroll a leaf carefully and see if you can find signs of the tent ropes that fastened the roll together when it was smaller. Can you find where it began?

7. As you unroll the leaves what do you see at the center? Has the leaf been eaten? Can you discover the reason why the caterpillar made this roll?


Leaflets of locust, fastened together to make a nest by the caterpillar of butterfly.

8. How do you think a caterpillar manages to roll a leaf so successfully? Where is the spinning gland of a caterpillar? How does the insect act when spinning threads back and forth when rolling the leaf? What sort of insect does the caterpillar which rolls the leaf change into? Do you suppose that the same kind of caterpillars makes the rolls on two different species of trees?

9. In July or early August get some of the rolls with the caterpillars in them, unroll a nest, take the caterpillar out and put it on a fresh leaf of the same kind of tree or shrub on which you found it, and watch it make its roll.

Supplementary reading—"A Dweller in Tents" and "A Little Nomad," in Ways of the Six-Footed.

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