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Carolina Sphinx

Big, lime-green and boldly patterned, the curious-looking Tobacco Hornworm is the bane of many a gardener. If the parasitoid braconid wasps don't get them, irate tomato-growers often do.

I suspect a lot of people who bump off Tobacco Hornworms don't know what Stage II is. The caterpillars, if they make it, eventually become beautiful Carolina Sphinx moths, Manduca sexta. This one was resting on a brick wall on the front of the building where my office is, in a very urban part of Columbus, a few weeks back.

Last night, I was up to visit my parents in Worthington, and stepped into their backyard to see what insects might be singing. Their yard, at least the back yard, is a fabulous suburban habitat full of a wonderful blend of native plants and ornamentals. I always find interesting things there.

Anyway, right outside the back door is a lush patch of Four-o-clock, Mirabilis jalapa. This non-native ornamental closes its flowers during the day, but they come into full bloom after nightfall - a design for attracting pollinating moths. And I hadn't even got out the door when I saw an enormous moth working the plants.

A Carolina Sphinx! These moths really are cool when on the wing, looking all the world like a big, sluggish hummingbird. Nearly the size of a small bat, they are conspicuous when noticed, but as they ply their trade in complete darkness, Carolina Sphinx moths often go unnoticed.

This is a moth totally adapted for working flowers with extremely long corolla tubes, such as various phlox, and these Four-o-clocks. Look closely and you'll see its tongue extending deep into the flower.

When actively foraging for nectar, Carolina Sphinx moths tend to keep their ridicuously long tongue unfurled and ready for action. It's well over the length of their body. Gene Simmons has nothing on these guys!

To make the moth's incredible tongue easier to see, I highlighted it in white. Amazing!

Think about the other part of the caterpillar's life cycle the next time you go to snuff out one of the offending Tobacco Hornworms, and should you have any Four-o-clocks in the yard, go have a look at them after dark and see who is visiting.


Scott said…
You've been hanging out with some really cool bugs recently!
Janet Creamer said…
Wow! How in the world did you get that shot of its tongue? Very cool!
dAwN said…
Oh my..What a long tongue that moth has!
Jim McCormac said…
Yes - very cool bugs, but this moth may be the coolest. Until... you see the next subject!

Just got lucky with the shots. I was shooting in mostly dark, a bit of headlamp illumination, and using low-level flash and a very underexposed aperture setting. A few worked out OK.

Cathy said…
Incredible photos!

And a very effective appeal for going easy on tomato horn worms.

I haven't thought of 4 o'clocks in years. Wonderful plant.
Bob Scott said…
Years ago I worked on a tobacco farm in southern Jackson Co. We called these guys tobacco worms, and they were fairly common. Of course, it's the same plant family. We'd leave them alone if they were parasitized, but kill them otherwise. I regret that today, as I regret growing tobacco, although the hand labor made it way more fun than growing corn or beans.
Musicmom said…
I'm enjoying your blog after recently discovering it thanks to JZickefoose. However, I am pretty sure that the cat is a TOBACCO hornworm, whose moth is Manduca sexta, as you said. TOMATO hornworms are Manduca quinquemaculata ( The only reason I know this is because I found a hornworm and did some research on it because my son and I wanted to try to get it to pupate. The instructions were pretty elaborate, but we followed them successfully and the next spring out hatched the beautiful moth (which needless to say we released somewhere besides my yard and garden). Thanks for your interesting writing.
Anonymous said…
Just read you blog on Carolina Sphinx-hornworm. I will think twice on killing this worm found in my garden next year. Sheila

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