Vegetable gardeners might be inclined to squish tomato and tobacco hornworms, which feast voraciously on tomato, pepper and potato plants and other members of the Solanaceae family this time of year. But hey, it’s Pollinator Week, so consider ceding a few fruits or entire plants to these dramatic caterpillars, which later morph into beautiful Sphinx Moths.
Loathed by gardeners in its caterpillar stage, the Manduca quinquemaculata, or tomato hornworm, has eight V-shaped marks on each side and a signature horn on the rear. Manduca sexta, the tobacco hornworm, closely resembles its tomato preferring cousin, but shows seven diagonal white lines on its sides and a curved horn.
Both caterpillars turn into large moths with four- to six-inch wingspans in colors ranging from brown and gold to pink and grey. They often are mistaken for small hummingbirds when they fly during the day and hover helicopter style to nectar on flowers, which is why they are also called Hummingbird or Hawk Moths.
Moths, the nocturnal brethren of butterflies, are generally under appreciated and yet many are as striking as their celebrated butterfly siblings. Like butterflies, moths perform necessary pollination tasks and serve as primary fodder for bats, birds, even small mammals.
The hornworm caterpillars get their name from the signature horns that grace their hind ends. The “Sphinx Moth” monicker results from the distinct pose the caterpillar assumes when disturbed. Upon the mildest poke, the creature rears its head in a thoughtful stance, hoisting the upper third of its body in a sphinx-like posture.
According to one study, Sphinx Moths are a primary pollinator of Agave plants in the Arizona desert, which in some fashion makes tequila possible. And yet moths have an unfair reputation as creepy and scary, perhaps because they fly at night, have fuzzy antennae and often exhibit an erratic flight pattern. Some people even have a fear of moths, called mottephobia. “Motte” means “moth” in German.
The 1991 thriller The Silence of the Lambs, starring Jodi Foster as tenacious cop Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins as cannibalistic serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, didn’t help moths’ reputation. In the award-winning movie, the killer Buffalo Bill places the cocoon of a certain species of hawk moth, the Death’s Head Hawk Moth, in the mouths of his victims as some sort of sick gesture of transformation. The moths fly around in a creepy, dark basement and evoke a weird terror.
According to the film trivia website IMDb, the tobacco hornworm moths used in the the film were treated like celebrities by the filmmakers: “They were flown first class to the set (in a special carrier), and had special living quarters (rooms with controlled humidity and heat).”
The movie poster at right featured Jodi Foster with a tobacco hornworm moth photoshopped with a skeleton skull–actually a realistic portrayal of the Death’s Head Hawk Moth, which is generally only found in Africa and southern Europe.
Interestingly, the iconic Death’s Head Hawk Moth tapped for the film is one of few moths that makes a squeaking sound when startled. Described as a loud, high-pitched squeak, the noise results from air expelling from their proboscis.
NOTE: The above post has been updated to correct plot points in the movie, “Silence of the Lambs.”
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