CATERPILLAR OF THE WEEK: King of the vegetable patch, scourge of the gardener, and one of my all-time personal favorite caterpillars, Manduca sexta - the Tobacco Hornworm.
This is the sphinx caterpillar that we find in our gardens, chowing down on our precious tomatoes. Huge and elegantly patterned with white chevrons and a sweeping red horn; black and white legs, like witches stockings; a large green head with formidable mandibles and an apatite to match. Get too close, and it rears back on its last pair of prolegs and swings its body side to side.
At farmer's markets, our displays of lush tomato plants being massacred by these plump monsters is looked on with disdain by nearby farmers. It brings shivers to those who have dealt with them as a constant pest for so long. But our perspective is very different, and we openly challenge the long held view of this creature as a disgusting and damaging beast.
At The Caterpillar Lab, we grow tomatoes for the hornworms. They are marvelous native insects. As big and impressive a sphinx as any you might find in the tropics. As caterpillars, they are sturdy, veracious eaters - able to consume well-defended, toxic leaves that would kill most other insects. As pupa, they are unique, with long nose-like chambers where the adult proboscis will develop. As adult moths, they are almost bat-like; a coat of dense hair and scales, powerful long wings, hovering flight, oversized eyes, and a long life span.
Besides their intrinsic value, they are also a fantastic resource. Local farms are becoming more involved with teaching, hosting camp groups, and promoting best practices and organic living. Manduca sexta should never be squashed when they can be raised by children, studied as the vectors for many important biological control organisms and agents, switched onto pest host plants like climbing nightshade to act as a control agent themselves, and ultimately appreciated as the mighty pollinator they will one day become. These insects can be used in so many ways. Get to it!
- Samuel Jaffe
"Caterpillar of the week" will highlight a different species we grow in "The Caterpillar Lab" each week. We hope you will enjoy meeting the caterpillars of New England!
More information on Manduca sexta on bugguide here: