An Astonishing Appetite

The greedy guest

Denuded pepper plant

Three very large hornworms are feasting in my very small vegetable garden. I first noticed the decimation when I went out to pick a few peppers for pizza. The formerly lush plant was at least half gone. As I leaned close to examine the damage, a curled up leaf transformed before my eyes into a ginormous green caterpillar. Perhaps sensing my shock, he waved his domed green head my way. Can that tiny speck be an eye? No, it’s an eye spot, designed to frighten predators like me. The caterpillar does have six pairs of simple eyes clustered on each side of his head. Soft fuzz coats his fat wrinkly form, and senses touch. The beautiful oval spiracles on his sides are how he breathes. On his tail end sprouts a perky red horn. All caterpillars grow extremely fast, molting their exoskeleton when it gets too small. When the new skin is still soft, the caterpillars swallow a lot of air, expanding their bodies. As the cuticle of the skin hardens they exhale, leaving room for more growth. Hornworms are famous for blending in; most gardeners don’t see them until it’s too late. Soon these three will drop to the ground and burrow into the soil a short way and pupate. In the spring with luck, a trio of Carolina sphinx moths will fly up from my tiny bed. For these are tobacco hornworms; very similar to the tomato hornworm that is the larvae of the Five-spotted hawk moth. Both of these species feed exclusively on plants from the Solanaceae family; tomatoes, tobacco, peppers, eggplant, potatoes. In September we had an outbreak of native hornworms that become the White-lined sphinx moth. At that time I wrote a blog praising the caterpillars that mostly eat weeds and native plants. All three of these moth species are big, beautiful and important pollinators as well as a food source for bats. Next fall I’ll try and have two pepper plants growing, one for our enjoyment and one for those astonishing hornworms.

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2 responses to “An Astonishing Appetite

  1. They are amazing creatures and while it is hard to admire them as they munch away at your beloved plants….they are proof positive that nature rocks.

  2. thats one hell of a caterpillar

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