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Agriculture Today

Soft-winged nectar lovers start as ‘tomato worms’

Soft-winged nectar lovers start as ‘tomato worms’

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Wilson County News
March 27, 2013
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On occasion, residents enjoying a quiet evening outside may catch a glimpse of what appear to be small hummingbirds feeding on the nectar of flowers around dusk. And while it may in fact be a hummingbird, it’s also likely to be one of several large moth species of the area, known as “hummingbird moths.”

One such moth common to the area is the Hyles lineata, or White-lined Sphinx Moth. The sphinx moths are often referred to as “hawk moths” or “hummingbird moths,” and truly resemble hummingbirds in flight, beating their wings in swift fashion in order to hover while feeding on the nectar of flowers.

Named for its physical appearance, the White-lined Sphinx Moth has white lines along the veins of the wings and thorax. The moth has a wingspan that can reach more than 5 inches, and its body is generally 3 inches or so in length. The sphinx moths feed primarily on nectar that is high in water and sugar. They do so by the use of a long, curled proboscis, which can be 10 inches in length or longer. Some of their favorite food sources include primrose, orchids, petunias, honeysuckles, lilacs, sages, and clovers. The moths do serve as pollinators, and their role in the ecosystem is undeniable.

But even if you haven’t spotted these “hummingbird moths” hovering near your yard, it’s likely you have seen them in another form -- as caterpillars.

Nearly everyone in the area has seen or possibly done battle with “tomato worms.” The caterpillars are often green, but can also be yellow with stripes and circles. Caterpillars, in general, can consume large portions of plants, and tomato worms often cause problems for those with gardens.

The caterpillar eventually burrows below the surface and moves into a pupa stage where it transitions into its adult state -- as a moth.

It is during this adult stage that the moths reproduce, and a female can lay 1,000 eggs. The eggs hatch within days, and the caterpillars emerge, beginning the life cycle all over again.

So the next time you spot a tomato worm in your garden, you will know that while destructive to your plants in its current form, it also grows into a beautiful moth that serves an important role in pollination.

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