My father taught me to appreciate the natural world of our
home garden. The day-to-day of my young life was tied to the cycle of the
plants, the animals and yes, even the insects. There was always a lesson to be
learned, an eco-adventure to be observed, played with, or tackled head-on.
I grew up, but did not out-grow this adventurous spirit of South Florida gardening. We live in a magical place.
There is endless possibility within our home landscapes – adventures that cost
little more than patience and a desire to learn. Now it is my turn to teach my
children about the creatures that share our suburban yard.
You, the homeowner share your green space with a host of
impressive insects. Very few are damaging to the health and well being of your
home garden. Unfortunately it is those few bad apples that we hear so much
about, leading us to wage war in our own backyards, instead of peaceful
One of my most treasured insects and childhood memories is
the giant grey sphinx moth, Psuedosphix
tetrio. Do not let its name fool you; there is nothing “pseudo” about this
creature. It is full-blown and turbo-charged, buzzing around outside your
windows under cover of darkness.
The giant grey sphinx is native to the American tropics, but
you will probably not encounter it on a daily basis. They fly at twilight and
into the night, resembling more a stealthy humming-bird than a typical moth.
Here in South Florida they are relatively
uncommon - drawn to the fragrance of the frangipani flower (Plumeria sp.). Surprisingly, the
frangipani offers no reward of nectar for the giant grey sphinx, but the moth
pollinates the frangipani anyway.
Yet, it is another part of the lifecycle of the giant grey
sphinx moth that is truly exceptional. The eggs are laid under the leaves of
our frangipani plants, hatching into tiny black and yellow caterpillars. These
caterpillars do not stay little for long. They grow at an alarming rate, eating
and eating on the leaves. In fact, they do little else than eat and grow.
In the garden it is their droppings that you often find
first. Looking up from the soiled ground you cannot help but be impressed by
the show of color and sheer size of the maturing caterpillars. They grow and
molt multiple times, reaching a size of six inches or more. They are also a bit
nervous as caterpillars go and they will sense your presence beneath the tree,
flicking their spiky tails agitatedly (they have little pointed tails like
their closely related green-colored hornworms feeding on your tomato plants).
Their only defense against predators is the latex of the
frangipani plants that they ingest. The latex is toxic to many creatures and
has a bitter taste. Yes, I have tried it to be sure, but I do not recommend the
experience. Predators too seem to share my sentiments about the taste of the
giant grey sphinx caterpillar. They are left alone to grow and later to return
to the leaf litter below the tree to form their cocoons. They hatch months
later as adult moths, starting the cycle all over again.
Why should you, the avid South Florida
gardener share your landscape with such a creature? After all, as a caterpillar
they eat the leaves of your beloved frangipanis, and as a moth they are neither
the most photogenic nor the most obvious of creatures in the yard. Yet, these
are truly astounding creatures.
Firstly, size does matter. Show me another 6-inch
caterpillar with such striking beauty. They eat with extreme gusto and have a
definite personality (if a caterpillar can have a personality?). Trust me; they
are more stimulating to watch than this week’s reality shows.
Perhaps what most intrigues me about the giant grey sphinx
is their scarcity. In my years growing up in South Florida
I had them in my yard only once. Just once, and yet there is not a day that
passes where I do not look skyward in childlike anticipation to the boughs of
the frangipani tree for their colorful presence. Gilligan’s Island couldn’t do
that for me.
This year marked the first time that my children, now
teenagers, came face to face with these monsters of the backyard. I am happy to
report that their encounter was a pleasant one, neither child nor caterpillar
sustaining any damage. And perhaps, just perhaps I was able to divert their
attention from the video games and end of the world scenarios that grip our
Long live the giant grey sphinx moth and its most impressive