Monsters of the Backyard

Sunday, March 23, 2014

BY RICHARD J. CAMPBELL

FAIRCHILD TROPICAL BOTANIC GARDEN

As published in the Miami Herald

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 coexistence.  





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 modern world.





Long live the giant grey sphinx moth and its most impressive caterpillar.