White-Lined Sphinx Moth: The Prequel

White-lined sphinx moth caterpillar (Hyles lineata)

When I discovered this gem trucking along a Gillespie County roadside in early May, it appeared to be headed toward a patch of pretty yellow primroses, members of the family (Onagraceae) that includes some of Hyles lineata’s favored host plants.

Their distinctive patterns, rear ‘horn,’ and dotted head and anal plate make identification of these mature caterpillars relatively easy. On the other hand, anyone who’d not yet encountered a white-lined sphinx moth browsing an evening flower garden or shady canyon creek might find it hard to imagine the result of the caterpillar’s transformation. It’s one of those remarkable stories nature’s more than happy to produce.

Adult white-lined sphinx moth feeding on wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) 


Comments always are welcome.
For my earlier post devoted to the white-lined sphinx moth in art and science, please click here.

63 thoughts on “White-Lined Sphinx Moth: The Prequel

  1. It is only over the past four or five years that I have studied caterpillars to any extent, but what a rewarding and interesting study they make. I would encourage anyone to give it a try. Many caterpillars are sufficiently distinctive to enable identification, and the variety of form, shape, size and colour is quite remarkable. Even their assorted defence mechanisms are fascinating. And of course if you follow all of the stages of metamorphism from the various caterpillar instars to the adult insect you are in for a real treat.

    1. I’d paid little attention to caterpillars myself, until I fell in love with a critter I immediately dubbed the Big Green Guy when I saw him in Steve Schwartzman’s blog. I was so taken, I ordered a print of his portrait and hung it on my wall. Not so very long after that I began seeing caterpillars myself, realized how varied and interesting they are, and began trying to photograph them.

      As it happens, I know now that the Big Green Guy is himself the caterpillar of a white-lined sphinx moth. Apart from the color, the dots on his head are a good identifying mark. The prothoracic shield would have them, too, if it were visible. In the photo above, the shield can be seen if the photo’s enlarged by clicking.

  2. I find the moth version much more agreeable than the caterpillar, Linda! There’s just something so *wormy* about the caterpillar, isn’t there? Still, I suppose it’s part of Nature’s design that we all metamorphosis into “better” versions. Who’d want to be a baby forever?!?

    1. Well, at least this photo makes clear why so many people call them hornworms — that little protrusion on the rear end’s quite the giveaway. Your beloved tomato hornworm is in the same family; it turns into the five-spotted hawkmoth, which is brown and black, and to my eye not quite so attractive.

      Who’d want to be a baby forever? That made me laugh. I’ve known a person or two who seemed determined to do just that!

      1. “the five-spotted hawkmoth – to my eye not quite so attractive” lol, now there’s an understatement; ) Yes, Tomato Worms are quite amazing except when you’re bent over in the garden and quite suddenly realise you’re (literally!) eye-to-eye or they start clicking their mandibles your ear:/)

        1. Having said that, I have noticed – and it’s only an observational theory – that Tomatoes only seem to start ripening after the Hornworms start to chow down… And honestly, I don’t mind when they go crazy on the foliage (usually by that time there’s LOTS to go around: ) but it drives me bats when they casually chomp across the fruit whilst in transit from one leaf to another. (That’s when the ants usually get an extra treat to clean up)

    1. I had to wait a couple of years to find the caterpillar that goes with the moth, but it was a delightful discovery. At first I had no idea what it was, and it surprised me to find it was the hawkmoth. It’s fun to have both photos. Monarchs aren’t the only ones that transform so beautifully.

    1. Lucky you, to have the adults in your garden. I’ve seen the moth only three times: once feeding from the columbine, and twice from pink evening primrose. I read that the primroses are relatively higher in nectar, making them good choices for a creature that expends so much energy. And, yes: I think the caterpillar’s just as attractive as the moth.

    1. It’s quite a transformation, isn’t it? It does seem that they can vary quite a bit in color. One article said:

      “The typical Midwestern color morph is green (dark to lime green) with a series of black lengthwise stripes along with yellow and orange or pink dots. The extent and intensity of the stripes and spots varies among individuals. Western individuals are often a dull yellow or cream color, and dark forms may be brown to nearly black.”

      In a way, it’s even more interesting that such a variety of colors and patterns ends up as an easily identifiable species of moth.

    1. Maybe that would be a good motto to post in both public and private gardens: “Don’t Jinx the Sphinx!”
      There’s no question that pesticides and habitat loss are problems for them, and in some areas agricultural practices are contributing to their loss. As I heard someone say recently, we still have a chance to turn the boat around, but we need to remember that the boat’s a ship, and not a bass boat.

    1. I’m fond of lime green, and this one does lime green rather well. I was surprised to find it in such an open area, but it certainly made the photo session easier.

    1. And I’m glad you didn’t, because you sent me off to find out exactly how long the transformation does take. From the time the caterpillar burrows underground to pupate until it emerges is “about” two to three weeks. It’s more than a day — but not by much.

    1. The first one I encountered made its presence known by sound. The whirr of those wings can get your attention. A PBS article says, “While hummingbirds can hover by generating around 50 wingbeats per second and bats about 17 beats per second, the hummingbird hawkmoth tops them both at 85 beats per second.” No wonder it needs so much nectar.

          1. Oops, I think I’ve seen one like/or similar to yours here at least once, but the one I’ve seen most often has lovely warm rusty browns (reminds of Teddy Bear fur: ) and devilishly difficult to get a good shot. Photos these days are always catch-as-catch-can with the iPhone, never planned outings with a ‘real’ camera (but then again, always having a camera in your pocket certainly makes for a lot more opportunity; )

  3. It’s a very handsome moth, and I actually think the caterpillar is a nice color green, and handsome in its own way. It’s an amazing transformation, no one would recognize them from their pre-graduation photos.

    1. That made me laugh, and brought to mind a particularly unfortunate 7th grade class photo. My friends and I weren’t caterpillars then, and none of us turned into particularly flashy butterflies, but even a little transformation can be a good thing. I enjoyed your phrase “handsome in its own way,” too. It reminded me of my visits to certain modern art exhibits, where I often fall back on that phrase so common to critics: “Interesting…”

    1. I was pleased to find the caterpillar in the open. It occurred to me that he might be opening himself up to a little predation, but nothing was going to bother him while I was around, and eventually he made it back into the weeds. When I figured out what I’d found, I was glad that I’d taken the time to get the best photo I could. I didn’t quite get his whole length in focus — I couldn’t persuade him to stop for a minute, instead of moving on down that branch.

        1. Exactly. Part of it’s that pleasing plumpness, I think. He reminds me of the illustrations of the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, perched on his mushroom with his hookah.

          1. Love how the pattern (almost plaid-like, isn’t it?) and colours flow right from one end to the other. As an object in motion on those very similarly-shaped and similarly-coloured stems, I’m thinking that he’d blend in quite nicely with his preferred habitat(menu; ) Not sure if I might’ve missed it, but did you mention what he’s eating?

    1. Aren’t they wonderful little creatures? I learned that hawkmoth caterpillars in your area enjoy munching on fireweed as well as on primroses and other plants. Have you ever seen one? If not, I’ll bet you’ll recognize one if it comes into your neighborhood.

  4. Both are beautiful manifestations of metamorphosis. It can be mind boggling seeing the difference between larvae and adults.
    I don’t see nearly as many insects here as I used to so moth numbers, and caterpillars, are down. Like Tom mentions above, most likely pesticides. My neighbor wants nothing in his yard, besides their raised beds, but one species of grass blades.

    1. Having been raised among people obsessively dedicated to perfectly trimmed, monochromatic lawns, I pretty much know what your neighbor’s yard looks like. I used to think they were pretty — and it’s true that soft midwestern grass was great for bare feet. Now, even apart from their downsides for the rest of the environment, I see them as essentially boring.

      But nature finds a way. I was happily working along yesterday when something caught my eye. I thought it was a really large bee, but no: it was a leaf-cutter bee, carrying a bit of clipped leaf or grass. She flew up under a hatch cover, and emerged after a few minutes without the bit of leaf. I’m not telling on her. With luck, the hatch will stay closed, as it usually does, and the nest will have a chance.

      1. Here’s hoping for the bees’ success. It’s a shame people go nuts at the idea of an insect in their living space or lawn for that matter. I work for a woman who would have every spider within miles killed if possible. On the other hand, Mary Beth will catch them and reintroduce them to the outdoors. Moths too. Only one kind of moth eats woolen clothing but the vast majority of humans think they all do.
        I’m glad you’ll be keeping mum.

        1. Wool clothing? Wool clothing… I remember that! I do still have my mother’s cedar chest, which always seemed to be her last line of defense against those moths. For years, I had a sweater that hadn’t been properly protected, and she decorated it with embroidered flowers to cover up the holes.

          1. We have several garment bags in the basement and, as you might…or might not…imagine I rarely wear a suit or sport jacket. Mostly just funerals and weddings and these days even those no longer require formal dress. I took one suit out a while back, actually my wedding suit, and found that not only can I still wear it 35 years later (probably not always the case during those years however true lately) but it also now has a few ventilation openings that it did not used to have.
            At the furniture store where I work we used to sell a lot of Lane cedar chests. For some reason they are no longer in demand. I suppose people may have other ways to deter the larval species that do the damage.

            1. You know who still uses cedar? Boat (mostly yacht) owners. I know carpenters who’ve installed custom cedar liners in drawers and lockers for boat owners. I’ve never actually run with the cedar-locker crowd, but I hear the marine versions of the cedar chest are quite effective.

            2. We still occasionally sell dressers and bureaus with a cedar drawer, usually the bottom drawer. I wouldn’t have guessed that moths were a problem afloat. But some people just enjoy the smell of aromatic cedar so there might be that for some.

  5. It’s a blog two-fer! Gorgeous. Yes, I agree that’s is nice getting both the baby and the adult — almost always which look absolutely nothing alike.

    The tobacco hornworm is a nuisance of anyone growing tomatoes. I love them and let them munch. How else would he become a beautiful nectar-sipping, hovering moth?

    1. I suspect one answer to the hornworms-on-tomatoes issue might be the approach taken by some people I know who battle deer: plant enough so there’s something left over for the dinner table. Of course, it’s hard to feel sympathy for the hornworm when you come out and find your beautiful plants completely devoured. Despite their physical size, the size of their appetites can be remarkable.

      I’ll say this: watching a caterpillar at its own dinner table can be quite an experience. You wouldn’t think they could consume so much, so quickly. Then again, with such a short life span, they have to get on with it.

      1. Agreed. We have reared many a moth/butterfly, and before we bring a caterpillar indoors, we all agree to give them our FULL attention. The bigger they are, the more they eat.

        ‘Enough to share’ is our mantra when it comes to edibles. Wildlife need to eat too, and this garden is hardly ours — they were here long before us!

  6. Gorgeous! You caught that sphinx’s wing acting well. That’s something I must work on–action photos. Really beautiful shots!

    1. You do very well with your birds and bees — and butterflies, too. Sometimes, a little motion blur adds to a photo, and I think in the case of hummingbird moths, that’s almost always true. After all, it’s their motion that’s one of their most distinguishing characteristics. I was pleased with both of these photos, and I’m glad they appealed to you, as well.

  7. This one looks like emerald beads on a string – just gorgeous.
    I had one of these as a “pet” as a kid – fed it leaves and leaves and leaves. (kept me busy and out of mom’s hair)The final appearance was so impressive before it left.
    Amazing pictures once again

    1. I’ve come across a few similar reports and cautions about raising caterpillars: they require more time and attention than you might expect. They certainly can be voracious eaters; it tickles me, thinking about smart Mom grinning to herself as you scuttled about to meet their needs.

      It’s nice to have the pair of photos. Now that I have so many of the salt marsh moth caterpillar, I need to be on the lookout for the moth itself. It’s fun seeing the changes.

    1. Isn’t it something? There’s another hawkwing moth called a glasswing, that has mostly transparent wings. It’s a stunner, too — there are so many wonders in this world, and always a new one around the corner.

    1. The moth’s photo was taken mid-morning on a cloudy day, but I found the caterpillar around noon or early afternoon in a completely open area with full sunlight. Given that, I was more than pleased with the photo, which only needed to have the exposure reduced a bit. I usually don’t do so well in those conditions, but this time, it worked. I’m pleased you like it.

    1. There’s never any ‘late’ around here! Besides, when someone comments on a photo that’s been posted for a while, it gives me an opportunity to take another look, myself, and remember what usually already has been forgotten. Even with so many new “finds,” it’s always good to remember the old!

  8. I work HVAC in CO and visit many homes every day in the metro Denver area every day. This customer however had a Hyles lineata on it’s porch and said that every year at a certain time of year it appeared without fail. I have been to their house twice and only saw it once but got a picture of it the first time https://ibb.co/XJkyhBg

    1. My gosh! Thanks so much for taking the time to add your photo here. It’s certainly beautiful. I work on boats, and like you I occasionally find something interesting from the insect world lurking around my work spaces. The best have to be the leaf-cutter bees. They like the tiny vents on the sides of boats, and will build nests in them. There’s nothing funnier than watching a hard-working bee make itself at home on a yacht.

      I know a couple of people who live in or around your area. I’m going to pass this on to them. I know they’ll enjoy it as much as I did!

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