It is fall and if you are growing vegetables, you might have discovered caterpillars on your plants. Before you pluck them away, take a moment to find out what those chubby worms will become if left to dine.
The eastern black swallowtail caterpillar is hard to miss. Feeding on members of the carrot and parsley family, if you find these in your garden you might be tempted to remove them. Their bright yellow, black and white banding serves as a warning to birds that they do not taste good. Even more intriguing is their osmeterium or scent horns used to deter hungry predators. If you pull at them to take them off your plants, they will pop out bright orange tube-like balloons from their head. These emit a distasteful scent and hopefully help them survive another day of munching if disturbed by a predator or well-meaning gardener.
The beautiful adult butterfly this caterpillar morphs into is one of our 10 swallowtail species in Florida and can be seen in our state throughout the year. The long, tailed hind wings make this group of lovely insects unmistakable as does their showy patterns and large size. Their impressive wingspan is remarkable when you consider their beginnings as a 1mm egg.
From the moment of hatching, caterpillars are eating machines. Most consume the ovum from which they just hatched and spend the rest of the summer months doing little else but eating to be able to metamorphose into these stunning adults.
While within the chrysalis or cocoon, an amazing degree of change occurs to a lowly caterpillar over a course of several weeks to an entire winter depending on species and location. Imagine the miraculous process of this worm-like creature morphing into the winged wonder of a butterfly or moth. This complex process involves a dual set of genes and specialized cells that utilize hormones to reorganize the caterpillar’s tissues into a completely different insect. A miracle of life, often unseen and overlooked by human eyes.
Another garden crawler that may decimate your tomatoes or similar vegetables are sphinx moth larvae. Named for the unicorn-like spike poking off the caterpillar, these include the tobacco or tomato “hornworms.” While they might be eating your vegetables, the adult form is a stunning, large moth often mistaken for a hummingbird.
Able to fly at speeds over 20 miles per hour, sphinx moths are also nicknamed hawk moth for their flying prowess. With torpedo shaped bodies and tapered wings, their flitting about flowers to feed really do make them resemble a speedy hummingbird. Watch for them around twilight around plumbago or other light-colored flower beds.