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Family: Sphingidae, Latreille, 1802
copyright C. Odenkirk
Trina Woodall of Central Texas initiated an email correspondence on Thursday, August 21, 2008, with regard to identification and care of a mature Manduca sexta larva that she found in her garden. Trina was successful in getting the caterpillar to pupate and emerge as an adult seventeen days after pupation. The method described below is appropriate for most Sphingidae species.
Trina has granted permission to post our back and forth corrspondence so that others may benefit from her experience. Trina's words are in red; my responses are in black. Click the on/off button above to enjoy some nice music while you are reading.
August 21, 2008:
"Thank you for your informative site! I love all the
beautiful photos! My six year old son recently discovered a
tomato hornworm in our tomato vine (go figure, right?).
I understand these caterpillars are considered pests to
the general public, but I have a hard time killing
things! That being said, we snipped off part of the vine
and brought it inside and put in a mesh enclosure we had
for butterflies. We have been providing it with loads of
fresh leaves and the two tomatoes it was feasting on when
it was discovered. Anyway... said caterpillar is seeming
very restless, the line on its back is getting darker. I
read on your site that they pupate underground. Can I
continue to keep this caterpillar in the mesh enclosure,
or should I move it into a different container. I noticed
you said the pupae could be kept in a tightly closed
container. Do I keep it at room temp or does it need to
"I realize I have many questions. If you have info or a
website that describes how to care for a similar moth, that
would be great. I just couldn't cut this little guy in
half and feed him to the birds! Besides, I'm a
homeschooling mom... this is cool science in action!
"Thank you so much for your time!"
"Thank you for your informative site! I love all the beautiful photos! My six year old son recently discovered a tomato hornworm in our tomato vine (go figure, right?). I understand these caterpillars are considered pests to the general public, but I have a hard time killing things! That being said, we snipped off part of the vine and brought it inside and put in a mesh enclosure we had for butterflies. We have been providing it with loads of fresh leaves and the two tomatoes it was feasting on when it was discovered. Anyway... said caterpillar is seeming very restless, the line on its back is getting darker. I read on your site that they pupate underground. Can I continue to keep this caterpillar in the mesh enclosure, or should I move it into a different container. I noticed you said the pupae could be kept in a tightly closed container. Do I keep it at room temp or does it need to get cold?
"I realize I have many questions. If you have info or a website that describes how to care for a similar moth, that would be great. I just couldn't cut this little guy in half and feed him to the birds! Besides, I'm a homeschooling mom... this is cool science in action!
"Thank you so much for your time!"
"I would recommend rearing indoors in an airtight container to conserve moisture in foliage. So recommendation is move to more suitable container.
"When Sphingidae caterpillars leave foliage and start crawling around bottom of enclosure, it usually means they are mature and are looking for a place to pupate. Maybe that is why it seems restless.
"Put it in a big jar, lid on tight with no airholes. Put in foliage. If it continues to eat, fine, change foliage at least every other day and clean out jar at least every other day.
"If it leaves foliage and crawls around bottom of jar, then treat as per Paonias excaecata article at http://www.silkmoths.bizland.com/pexcaeca.htm
"Contact me again for further details once it has pupated. "Always helps me when giving instructions, if I know where you are at least to state level."
August 21, 2008
Thank you for your suggestion, I will transfer the
caterpillar to a jar this evening. I realized after I sent
the email that I neglected to mention that we are in
central Texas. Thank you for contacting me! Everyone I
know is saying I should just step on this thing and be
done with it, so it can't lay eggs and infest other
peoples' gardens, but I figure this little guy can't help
what he is and has a right to live. And like I said, this
is biology at its finest! My son is COMPLETELY fascinated
"I will contact you when it pupates and again, thanks for
your time and advice! We're excited to see how this plays
"I will contact you when it pupates and again, thanks for your time and advice! We're excited to see how this plays out!""Hope it works out well. It is a bug eat bug world out there, and Manduca sexta and quinquemaculatus tend to be very susceptible to parasitoid wasps and flies in larval stage. If there are any small white eggs on the caterpillar's skin, or very irregular black pin-hole sized scars, then caterpillar may already be doomed. But, some make it through without parasitization, so hopefully yours will too."
"I am writing to find out how long the tomato hornworm pupation process takes. After I read your email, I found an air tight container, filled it with leaves and put paper towels along the bottom. It ate ravenously for about two days. Then about two days ago, I opened up the container to replenish leaves and he was stiff and not moving. He seems a little darker today, but still looks like, well, a dried up dead caterpillar. I know the pupation process moves through a series, but was curious how long this takes. I am just trying to determine if this little guy just died, or if he is doing his thing. If you need me to take a photo I will." "There is considerable shrinkage/sweating that occurs during the pupation process. Usually within five days of cessation of feeding, the pupa is formed.
"As soon as the caterpilllar is done feeding, all foliage should be removed. As it ages, it gives off gases that would not be good in a closed container.
Remove the foliage and prod the caterpillar gently to see if there is any movement. Best of luck. No need to send an image.
If the caterpillar is still alive, it should move if you pick it up gently. If it is totally still, like "stiff as a board", it probably succumbed to a fungal or bacterial infection."
August 25, 2008
"Jeepers! I reached in to remove the last of the tomato leaves and accidentally bumped him and he flailed around like crazy, scared the pooey out of me! I wasn't expecting him to move at all! So, now all foliage has been removed and he has a clean bed of paper towels. I will check on him periodically over the next few days. Thanks again! I'll contact you for further instructions once it has pupated."
"I should have warned you, but it was almost more fun anticipating the response.
Keep the lid on tight to keep humidity high. Paper towel will become quite limp."
August 27, 2008
"Well it seems as though "Ernie" the tomato worm has pupated. He
is now brown with that tube looking apparatus coming from the top
(or bottom), there is also a little shriveled up wad of what looks
to be skin, kind of like when a snake sheds. What a cool thing!
Anyway, I am now eagerly awaiting further instructions.
"And by the way, I really do appreciate the time you've taken to
walk us through this. I know you're a busy man. But my son has
really been quite intrigued by the whole process, as have I. Now
I just hope he emerges someday."
"And by the way, I really do appreciate the time you've taken to walk us through this. I know you're a busy man. But my son has really been quite intrigued by the whole process, as have I. Now I just hope he emerges someday."
"Ernie may emerge in two or three weeks or may overwinter in pupal stage. Depends on where you are located?? what state?? Here is a page I send to people who order silkmoth cocoons. Process is similar
"Since you are working with a naked pupa instead of a pupa wrapped in a silken cocoon, there are a couple of differences. If you have a clear rubbermaid tub at least four inches high, that would be good for an emergence cage. Put a couple layers of moist paper towels on bottom of tub, put a layer of the small-celled bubble pack on top of that, and then put a layer of dry paper towels on top of the bubble pack. Lid goes on tight with no airholes.
"The moist paper towels and lid on tight will create a humid environment like the pupa would normally encounter underground. The bubble pack and dry paper towels will keep it out of direct contact with the liquid water.
"The naked pupa should be deposited gently on top of the dry paper towels, but wait a couple more days (leave pupa where it is for now), probably three or four to give the pupal shell a chance to thoroughly harden.
"When the adult moth does emerge from the pupa, its wings will be very soft and crumpled. It needs to be able to climb and hang so that fluids can be pumped into wing veins for proper expansion of wings. It is a good idea to have a paper towel, draped over sides of container, top to bottom, so emerged moth can climb towelling to hang. You will probably want to watch this process, so just drape towel over sides of one half of the container with bottom of draped towel under towelling on bottom of container, or place a stick, pencil-thick, on a diagonal from bottom to top of container so moth can hang from that.
"If the moth has not emerged within five or six weeks, it probably is not going to emerge until next spring. If that is the case, then in early October, wrap the pupa up in a piece or two of toilet tissue, leaving the head and tail ends open. End with the tongue sheathe ("tube looking apparatus") is the head end. The sheathe contains the long proboscis that the adult moth uses when nectaring at flowers.
"The wrapped pupa should now go into a sandwich sized tupperware or gladware or zip loc container with a layer of paper towels on bottom. Put in one or two drips of water, put wrapped pupa on top of paper towel, put lid on tight, no airholes, and put the tub in the refrigerator crisper for the winter.
"You will repeat the procedure with the four inch high emergence cage when you take the pupa out of cold storage in the spring. You can leave it in the tissued wrap.
"I would like permission to post our back and forth communication from a link on both the Manuduca sexta and Manduca quinquemaculatus pages?? so that others will know what to do, plus I got a kick out of your "scared the pooey out of me!"
"Yes, that is the shriveled shed skin, just like a snake skin.
"Do you remember whether Ernie had a red horn or a black horn??"
August 27, 2008
"I will leave "Ernie" be until Sunday, then I will transfer him per
your protocol. We are in Central Texas. Yes, you may post our
communication. I guess now, I'll have to try to sound a bit more
educated when we converse! ;-) And I'm glad YOU got a kick out of
that stinkin' caterpillar scaring the pooey out of me, I thought I
was going to faint! It's weird, I'm not a squeamish person, and bugs
don't freak me out, but I was quite sure at the time that he was
QUITE dead! When I checked on him this morning, he flailed around a bit
again. I took a quick photo and covered him up again as not to
stress him too much.
As far as his horn, I'm thinking more reddish? Here is a photo of
him in all his glory...
As far as his horn, I'm thinking more reddish? Here is a photo of him in all his glory...
Manduca sexta, Central Texas, August 21, 2008, courtesy of Trina Woodall
"Also, if he does emerge in the next few weeks, I will do my best to get photos before I release him (FAR, FAR away from MY garden!) We're exctied!
"That one is Manduca sexta. Blog is great. I will also post the image. In central Texas, you may well get another brood of them this year."
September 13, 2008
"Well, much to my surprise, Manduca sexta or "Ernie" emerged this afternoon! That didn't take nearly as long as I thought it would! He is on the side of the tupperware right now. It looks as if he is still getting his wings in order. Is it OK for me to keep him for a couple of days in my mesh butterfly enclosure before releasing so I can show him to my science co-op? Do I need to provide food or water for him if I do? I can take him to be released tomorrow if it's bad for me to keep him. We are really excited to see him. Wish we would have seen the actual emergence though. But I guess unless you sit and stare at the pupa constantly, it's hard to catch! Oh well, none-the-less, Ernie the big green caterpillar now has wings! So cool!"
September 14, 2008
"Congratulations. Please let me know from which Texas County Ernie hails??
"I would like permission to post image and our back and forth correspondence so others might have a chance at similar success. Thanks for giving me permission. I will work on that after church today.
"'Ernie may emerge in two or three weeks or may overwinter in pupal stage.' Thanks for confirming my prediction. That is also useful data for others in similar location.
"Manduca sexta adults do nectar and it is a bit of work to feed them artificially so I recommend you release it Monday night after showing your friends on Monday.
"Can you send a picture of Ernie the adult moth??"
September 14, 2008
"Ernie is from Travis County, TX. Yes, you may use my photos. I really
appreciate all the help in getting this little beastie all the way
through to adulthood! He is a beautiful moth, my son is just blown
away. I mean we have reared Painted Lady butterflies and that was
great, but this was on a much grander scale.
"We checked out the chrysalid, and what a strange thing! It was so delicate! It's just
amazing that such an extreme transformation could happen within such a
delicate casing! Here are some pictures of Ernie as an adult. Again,
thanks for all of your help. This has been a wonderful learning
experience for my entire family! And just as a note, we are REALLY
happy that Ernie isn't going to be living in our fridge over the
"This was right after we discovered that he emerged, he was very still,
in fact I was worried that he had died. What a huge mess they make
"We checked out the chrysalid, and what a strange thing! It was so delicate! It's just amazing that such an extreme transformation could happen within such a delicate casing! Here are some pictures of Ernie as an adult. Again, thanks for all of your help. This has been a wonderful learning experience for my entire family! And just as a note, we are REALLY happy that Ernie isn't going to be living in our fridge over the winter! :-)
"This was right after we discovered that he emerged, he was very still, in fact I was worried that he had died. What a huge mess they make coming out!"
Manduca sexta, Travis County, Texas,
September 13, 2008, courtesy of Trina Woodall.
Manduca sexta, Travis County, Texas,
September 13, 2008, courtesy of Trina Woodall.
During the months of June, July, August and into early September on Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada, I am usually very busy rearing larvae (c aterpillars) of many local Saturniidae (giant silkmoths) and Sphingidae (hawk moths). I sell the cocoons and pupae in the fall. Visit http://www.silkmoths.bizland.com.cocoons.htm to see what I usually have to offer.
In the spring and early summer I sell eggs of these moths to people who wish to experience the wonderment of rearing. I have posted an Actias luna rearing article for those who wish to rear luna moths from eggs to adults. Most of the Saturniidae can be handled as per instructions on that webpage.
I get many requests for identifications of moths and larvae and do my best to assist. It always helps if you can send an electronic image, never more than 10,000,000 kgb at one time, and if you can provide data: date and location, at least to state and county level. The more precise you can be, the better. There are diferent species in different regions and location is a big help.
There are over ten thousand moth species in North America. My expertise is with the Saturniidae (almost one hundred species in US; close to two thousand species world wide. I can help with most of these), Sphingidae (approximately 122 species in United States and Canada; many more in Central America and South America and the Carribean Islands), Catocala (underwing moths, approximately one-hundred-twenty-six species/subspecies in US and Canada. I can help with all of these). Larvae of these groups tend to be large and most of the Sphingidae caterpillars have the characteristic anal horn. I also am familiar with many of the butterfly larvae of US and Canada. Despite this "expertise" there are thousands of moths and their larvae that I would not be able to identify.
I offer this identification/information service in appreciation of the many people who have helped me and continue to help me in my desire to learn about these beautiful and fascinating insects. Images and data that you send me go into the data base where others can access same and learn from collective experiences.
These pages are hosted on webspace I rent from Bizland and 1 & 1 Internet. I recover my rental costs from donations and from membership registrations. Two websites that are private and require a one-time-life-time membership fee are the World's Largest Saturniidae Site. There are state by state distribution maps for all US species. There are active checklists for most countries in the world. Over 1450 Worldwide Saturniidae species are depicted. Larval foodplants, flight seasons, distribution ranges, etc., are provided on this website. It is my major "work" and gets updated on a regular basis. There is an almost steady stream of information and images that arrive from over 1,000 worldwide members (September 2017).
Caterpillars Too! is another membership Canadian/United States butterfly website that features North American butterflies and their caterpillars. Members get a personalized homepage where I indicate exactly which species they can expect to encounter in their own counties/parishes/regions. The images are outstanding. I update the members' pages with data/images they provide, and assist with identifications.
Each homepage also has links to other states and provinces and links to respective Catocala and Sphingidae county thumbnail pictoral checklists.
I also maintain many other public websites, most of which can be accessed via GIANT MOTHS (SATURNIIDAE) OF PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND, CANADA.
I upgrade websites regularly and also have websites featuring larval host plants and butterfly nectar sources. These are still much in the development stages. I welcome contributions of high quality electronic images of trees/shrubs/vines and closeups of their foliage for the hostplant data base. For the butterflies I welcome high quality electronic images of nectar sources (flowers) for the feeding Sphingidae and butterflies. I am not a botanist so scientific names for the plants and flowers as well as location is required for the images to be posted. I offer free memberships to WLSS and Caterpillars Too! to people who can provide high quality images of insect species not already depicted on those sites. I also offer free membership to those who contribute substantial numbers of images of plants and flowers with scientific names and locations. Email Bill Oehlke with image submissions or for details.
I am sixty years old as of July, 2008, and I am in good health. I hope to be around for at least another 15-20 years. Websites have been developed over the last ten years, and I hope to be at it as long as I am able. A submission of a single image for the Catocala/Sphingidae sites is appreciated/helpful and will be posted and credited. All images that I use are with permission, and all images remain the property of respective photographers.
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Enjoy some of nature's wonderments, giant silk moth cocoons. These cocoons are for sale winter and fall. Beautiful Saturniidae moths will emerge the following spring and summer. Read Actias luna rearing article. Additional online help available.
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