Farmers Menace to Colorful Hoverer: The Five Spotted Hawk Moth

5 spotted hawk mothThroughout our day to day business most  people will probably see at least one butterfly or moth fluttering through the sky or simply sitting under the porch light at night. Some people may choose to ignore them, some may take note of the insects beauty, but pretty much no one will think about what it was before it became that butterfly or moth. Most of the time the moth’s or butterfly’s predecessor was a simple caterpillar with no special traits or abilities, simply eating leaves until enough energy has amassed for metamorphosis. Some caterpillars though are unique in their defensive capabilities, in their movement and in their diet. The larval form of the Five Spotted Hawk Moth is called a tomato hornworm and as you can guess by the name their favorite food is tomato leaves.

The Tomato Hornworm is local to northern Mexico and throughout the United States. They also happen to be a farmer’s nightmare. This is because tomato hornworms will eat the leaves of tomato, eggplant, potato, pepper, and tobacco plants. This may not seem like a problem since they are only eating the leaves, but unfortunately the plant needs those leaves to survive. Plants survive through photosynthesis which uses the surface area of the plants leaves to collect energy from the sun in order to form sugars. Without the plants leaves, their is nothing to collect energy with and therefore they cannot create their food. Luckily there are a number of ways farmers can combat these pests besides using pesticides such as handpicking them off or using other insect predators such as praying mantises or parasitoid wasps. In addition to these, the tomato plant itself enlists it own defensive mechanism. When the tomato plant begins to get eaten by hornworms, it releases a chemical signal into the wind. If other tomato plants receive this chemical signal they will bolster their own natural pesticide production as to prepare for the incoming pest attack. If the hornworm manages to avoid predation and farmers, then it will cocoon and become a moth in about 2 weeks.

5 spotted hawk mothThis process of metamorphosis is an intense and amazing process where some organs stay intact but others melt down into their proteins and other constituent pieces. They then slowly rebuild into the form of the butterfly or moth. The tomato hornworm rebuilds itself into the Five Spotted Hawk Moth, a relatively large moth with a very unique flying ability. Besides being enjoyable to look at and actually being quite fuzzy the Five Spotted Hawk Moth also has the ability to hover like a hummingbird and even drink from flowers while hovering. Although this uses more energy than simply landing and drinking from the flower, it is extremely advantageous for avoiding would be predators. This is because the act of hovering gives the moth a much faster reaction time and allows for quick sideways movement that would otherwise be impossible. Lastly, these moths do not live for a very long time, roughly around a year. As a result a majority of the caterpillars emerge in spring and are already laying eggs for the next generation by late fall. The eggs then lay dormant during winter and the process repeats itself.

Throughout our lives we tend to take many things for granted, many of which are not given a second thought. For a vast majority, the Tomato Hornworm and the Five Spotted Hawk Moth are two unremarkable unrelated organisms but, with a little bit of context simple organisms, become remarkable ones. This may not really be something to take for granted, but with every piece of contextual knowledge gained, a sliver of the world’s beauty is unlocked.

 

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