Hawk moths. Sphinx moths. Hornworm moths. Whatever you want to call them. They are absolutely beautiful. But their larva form, the hornworm caterpillar, is pretty destructive. I will admit, they are beautiful and fascinating to look at. If you’ve never seen one, here ya go.
As you can see, they get pretty big. A caterpillar of this size can easily plow down an entire plant in one or two days. We recently pulled one off a jalapeno plant. It had eaten about 1/3 of that plant by the time we found it. Unfortunately, we didn’t find it before it had completely devoured the entire jalapeno plant next to it. It even ate the undersides of the 3 little peppers growing on it! You can see that it decimated the plant. This plant is a total loss. Sigh.
Not one single leaf or pepper left behind on this plant! It’s like the caterpillar tried one pepper and didn’t like it, so it tried another and another. I mean…seriously?!
When we see them on our plants, we handpick them off and feed them to our chickens. It’s hilarious to listen to our girls whine because these are a favorite treat for them. The chicken that gets the caterpillar won’t share, and all the others will begin whining because they want one, too. We’ve watched the entire flock chase after one lucky chick for several minutes trying to steal the caterpillar.
Unfortunately, these caterpillars are almost perfectly camouflaged in the garden, and often times we don’t see them until they are as big as the one I have in my hand, pictured above. By the time they get that big, they’ve already done quite a lot of damage.
But, these nasty little suckers have a predator tailor made just for them. The braconid wasp dutifully and happily gives the hornworm its due comeuppance. I don’t have a picture of the wasp, as I have to be careful around bees and wasps since I’m allergic. Usually I just don’t mess with bees and they leave me alone. But wasps are another story. I have learned the hard way to go out of my way to avoid those guys.
The braconid wasp lays its eggs inside of the hornworm caterpillar. The larva eat the hornworm from the inside, and as they grow, they will begin exiting the caterpillar. They will form their little silk cocoons on the caterpillars back and pupate inside. When they are done growing, the caterpillar will die soon after. Until then, the caterpillar is almost comatose. It’s attached to a leaf but not really able to do anything other than be a host for the wasp babies inside. It’s gross, heartbreaking, and fascinating at the same time.
Here is the first one we found. My boy was fascinated by this. He pulled a few of the cocoons off before feeding it to the chickens. Later he looked at the cocoons under the microscope.
Here is the next one I found and it was just covered. It had to be absolutely miserable. I felt so sorry for this one. I mean, I know they are destructive and all, but this was just sad. I thought my son would be excited to see this so I pulled the leaf off of the plant and showed it to him. He choked back tears and prayed for it as he fed it to the chickens. He has such a tender heart.
And then we found a third one, not as bad as the second one. We still feel bad for them, regardless of how many cocoons are on them. Every time we feed a hornworm to the chickens, my son says he wishes he could see it grow into a moth.
I know this is all part of nature and everything is pretty much food for something else. Very little creeps me out with insects and spiders. But this is probably one of the creepiest things I’ve seen so far. Usually, I love caterpillars, because I love butterflies and moths. If only this particular species wasn’t devouring my tomatoes and peppers, I’d leave it alone.
We also have a resident garden weaver on our tomato plants. The boy has of course named her Shelob. We catch japanese beetles and crickets to feed to her. She’s quite impressive. Her body is probably an inch and a half long, making her close to 4 inches long from the tip of her front legs to the tip of her back legs. She makes her beautiful zigzag web in different places, but she’s got a good diner in our tomato plants. We leave her alone except to feed her bugs. The boys are good about splitting the loot of bugs between the chickens and Ol’ Shelob. We’ve found that 4 japanese beetles in one afternoon is all she will go for. As I said, not much creeps me out. 🙂
It’s nearing the end of summer and our tomato plants are looking a little tired. We’ve had a great tomato harvest. It was our first year to ever grow anything we could eat, so we’ve been loving that!
Crazy homeschool momma talk here…I may let my son keep a caterpillar or two the next time we find them. I’ll let him put fresh leaves in with the caterpillars and maybe he can watch the metamorphosis process so he can finally see the sphinx moth and all it’s beauty. It’s been several years since we hatched monarchs, so I’m sure he’s ready to enjoy seeing that process again.
Did you say “moth mini unit”? Oh yes, it’s coming! 🙂