Hornworms and the Web of Life

Hornworm caterpillar

Hornworm caterpillar

Sphinx moth

Every so often Nature pulls a stunt that gets everyone’s attention. Some examples come to mind: deluges in the desert, crimson and gold fall foliage, and sometimes big hatches of insects. Last Saturday Lexie and I went out for our walk and stepped into a sea of creeping caterpillars. Large green hornworms crawled everywhere across the desert floor.

Hornworms hatch as tiny non-descript caterpillars and continue to shed their skins and grow, trading up to ever larger sizes and brighter colors. They eat and expand until variances in light, moisture and temperature trigger a change. When this happens the caterpillars march in a mass dispersal like we witnessed last week. Reaching a suitable place with soft soil, the hornworms dig. Their grand miracle takes place as they lay underground.

A couple of weeks ago I found a hornworm inching along the floor of the greenhouse. This tomato hornworm was as big as my thumb and bright green, with stripes of white across his back like slashes of butter cream frosting. I put the caterpillar in an empty cottage cheese container and took it home.

At home I put leaves and sticks in a quart jar designed for seed sprouting, with a perforated plastic lid. I. added a trowel full of soil and then the hornworm. My caterpillar immediately started burrowing under the pile of soil in the jar. Within seconds he was invisible.

Flash forward twelve days. Marc and I are sitting outside after dinner watching bats swoop through the dusk. They’re snagging bugs that rise from the yard. The dog noses at the caterpillar jar on the table nearby. Something’s going on. I pick up the jar and see the large white-lined sphinx moth, clinging inside the lid. Metamorphosis!

It’s time for the changeling to fly free. Marc says take a picture, but it’s nearly dark and I want the moth to go, to be free. I unscrew the lid and the moth sails right out and up, into the darkening night.

Bam! She’s hit immediately, nabbed from the sky by a plummeting bat.

Sphinx moths are prime food for bats, an important source of nutrition for their fall migration. They have the ability to pick up on the echo location calls of hunting bats, and employ evasive moves. But this poor moth was tossed straight into the jaws of fate.

Made me feel like an ignoramus, unthinking of the life cycles and dramas going on around me. The doings of bugs seem a quaint reflection, nostalgic reminders of a time before we fell into the thrall of technology, before the world became quite so big and complicated. Yet, it is the cycles of insects and plants and that actually support our lives, not the latest and greatest devices.


2 responses to “Hornworms and the Web of Life

  1. Truly the cycle of life. How wonderful that you got to witness each event.

  2. You scooped me…this was the topic of my blog, but after reading this I realized that I couldn’t have done the justice to the subject that you did. I, too, had the caterpillar experience on our Liberty Wildlife property. I was so taken by the distance this little guys travel…pollinators in their final phase…their future is ours. We moved them off the pavement in hopes that they would make it to safety and ultimately perform their important role.

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