Frankly, the garden's not big enough for both of you, and one of you has to go. It's not you. It's the hornworm.
"This one is nobody's friend if you're a gardener and like to grow tomatoes," says entomologist Jeff Smith, curator of the Bohart Museum of Entomology's Lepidoptera collection, in his recently posted video showcasing the hornworm and its adult form, the sphinx moth (Sphingidae family).
Smith is presenting a series of short videos on the "different aspects of the collection of moths and butterflies."
In this video, Smith relates how the hornworm got its name: There's a "horn" at the end of its abdomen that looks like "a little spike." The tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) and tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata) are quite similar, he points out. Both are pests on tomatoes and are often labeled as "tomato hornworms."
The origin of the name, the sphinx moth? "When the larva or caterpillar is disturbed, it rears up into an Egyptian sphinx-like pose," Smith says.
However, good luck finding hornworms. "They are so well camouflaged, that it takes forever to find them," Smith says. One way to know they're there is "because they make a piece of poop (frass) about as big as a pea," Smith says.
When the caterpillars are attacked, "they spit tomato juice on you, which doesn't taste good."
The UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) says this about hornworms: "Hornworms feed on blossoms, leaves, and fruit. At high populations they can extensively defoliate plants and scar the fruit. They are rarely a problem in the warmer interior valleys unless natural enemies are disrupted, in which case, they can do serious damage. They are mostly problems in garden situations."
The Bohart Museum of Entomology also offers online information sheets, the work of Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart and a UC Davis distinguished professor of entomology. (The directory of subjects is here.)
"The larval stage (caterpillar) feeds primarily on tomatoes, but it also is known to attack other crop plants in the Solanaceae, including egg plants, peppers, and potatoes," Kimsey noted. "When the caterpillars are numerous, they can do extensive damage in a short time. The caterpillars feed on the upper portions of leaves and new stems, and occasionally, when the caterpillars are numerous, it will feed on the tomato fruit as well. They tend to remain out of direct sunlight, and so are found near the main stem of the plant during the day. They are more easily spotted when they move to the outer portions of the plant at dusk and dawn. Their presence is often first recognized by an excessive amount of frass (droppings) around the base of the plant. The hornworm caterpillar is 3½-4 inches (9-10 cm) long and pale green, with white and black markings." (Read more about the Bohart Museum's information on hornworms here.)
Meanwhile, have you ever been up close and personal to a hornworm?
We don't have any in our garden, so we borrowed a hornworm from a neighbor whose garden thrives with tomatoes and peppers. She plucked it off a pepper plant. "It seems to like the pepper plant better than the tomato," she said.
Perhaps this one will grow to adulthood? Apparently it's a tobacco hornworm as it has a red-tipped horn. "Tomato hornworms have eight V-shaped white markings with no borders; tobacco hornworms have seven white diagonal lines with a black border. Additionally, tobacco hornworms have red horns, while tomato hornworms have dark blue or black horns," according to Wikipedia. The tobacco hornworm turns into a Carolina sphinx moth or, generally, a hawk moth. The tomato hornworm turns into a sphinx moth commonly known as a sphinx, hawk, or “hummingbird” moth.
(Editor's Note: The Bohart Museum, located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane, UC Davis, is the home of nearly eight million insect specimens; a live "petting zoo," comprised of Madagascar hissing cockroaches, stick insects and tarantulas; and a gift shop. The Bohart is temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic precautions but the gift shop is online.)
The Red Coats are coming. The Red Coats are coming.
No, not an army of soldiers. Soldier beetles.
These insects (family Cantharida) resemble the uniforms of the British soldiers of the American Revolution, which is apparently how their name originated. They're also called "leatherwings" in reference to their leatherylike wing covers.
Soldier beetles are beneficial insects; they're the good guys and gals in the garden. The adults eat scores of aphids. In addition, they are pollinators. So, don't even think of killing soldier beetles. Enlist them in your garden to feast on aphids.
"The adults are long and narrow," according to the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM), which labels them as natural enemies of garden pests. "Common species are often about 1/2 inch (13 mm) long with a red, orange or yellow head and abdomen and black, gray or brown soft wing covers. Adults are often observed feeding on aphids or on pollen or nectar on flowering shrubs and trees. Metamorphosis is complete. Larvae are dark, elongate, and flattened. They feed under bark or in soil or litter, primarily on eggs and larvae of beetles, butterflies, moths, and other insects. There are over 100 species of soldier beetles in California."
If you want to know identify some of the natural enemies of garden pests, you can download UC IPM's educational poster, "Meet the Beneficials: Natural Enemies of Gardens" here.
The poster illustrates some of the beneficial insects, mites and spiders that prey on garden pests:
- Convergent lady beetle
(adult, larva, eggs)
- Green lacewing
(adult, larva, eggs)
- Predaceous ground beetle
- Assassin bug
- Pirate bug
- Damsel bug
- Soldier beetle
- Syrphid fly
- Sixspotted thrips
- Western predatory mites
- Predatory wasps
- Praying mantids
- Examples of parasites (including a typical life cycle)
These soldier beetles may even know how to pull rank.
If you engage in social media, you've probably seen a "what-is-this" query about a spider that some unsuspecting person discovered quite unexpectedly in a garden, bedroom, bathroom or garage. Triple exclamation points usually accompany "Yecch!!!" (Expletives usually require quadruple exclamation points.)
For a good general view of spiders, check out the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program's newly revised "Spiders" Pest Note.
"Many people fear or dislike spiders," according to the site, but "for the most part, spiders are beneficial because of their role as predators of insects and other arthropods, and most cannot harm people. Spiders that might injure people—for example, black widows—generally spend most of their time hidden outside homes in woodpiles or in clutter in the garage. The spiders commonly seen out in the open during the day are unlikely to bite people."
Spiders, which are arachnids, differ from insects in that they have eight legs (not six) and have no wings or antennae.
UC IPM offers information on black widow spiders, yellow sac spiders and recluse spiders (which, contrary to popular opinion, are NOT found in California). The website also touches on jumping spiders, hobo spiders, common house spiders, and tarantulas. A table, illustrated with photos, lists the common spider families in North America, including:
- Agelenidae, funnel weavers or grass spiders
- Araneidae, orb weavers or garden spiders
- Clubionidae (including Corinnidae), sac spiders or twoclawed hunting spiders
- Linyphiidae (=Microphantidae), dwarf spiders
- Lycosidae, wolf spiders
- Oxyopidae, lynx spiders
- Salticidae, jumping spiders
- Theridiidae, cobweb, cobweb weaver, or combfooted spiders
- Thomisidae, crab spiders or flower spiders
What about spider bites? "Unlike mosquitoes, spiders do not seek people in order to bite them," UC IPM says, tongue in cheek. "Generally, a spider doesn't try to bite a person unless it has been squeezed, lain on, or similarly provoked to defend itself. Moreover, the jaws of most spiders are so small that the fangs cannot penetrate the skin of an adult person. Sometimes when a spider is disturbed in its web, it may bite instinctively because it mistakenly senses that an insect has been caught."
If you've got a hankering to see a live tarantula (who doesn't?), you can do so when the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis opens its doors again to the public. The Bohart Museum, home of nearly eight million insect specimens, a gift shop (now online), and a live "petting zoo" (think Madagascar hissing cockroaches, walking sticks and taranatulas) is located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane. UC Davis spider expert Professor Jason Bond and his lab usually present a program there at least once a year or engage with folks at the open houses. Bond serves as the Evert and Marion Schlinger Endowed Chair in Insect Systematics, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. (See his lab website)
As an aside, Professor Bond "bonds" with spiders. Yes, he does. And he's never met a spider he didn't like.
Have you ever seen a plume moth?
Or has a plume moth ever seen you?
We spotted a pterophorid plume moth (family Pterophoridae) yesterday on our back door in Vacaville, Calif. The t-shaped moth stayed in the same spot the entire day, from dawn to dusk, even when we entered and exited the door multiple times.
Its shape is what makes it unusual. Butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, told us awhile back that the "T-square shape is classic."
In some respects, the pterophorid plume moth is fit to a "T."
At rest, the plume moth holds its slender wings at right angles to body, giving it a T-shaped profile.
In his book, California Insects, UC Berkeley entomologist Jerry Powell (now emeritus) explains why they're called plume moths..."because the forewings are deeply notched and the hindwings are divided into three linear parts, each with long scale fringes. When perched, the insects roll the forewings around the folded hindwing plumes, resulting in peculiar sticklike or craneflylike appearance, unlike any other moth."
Most are nocturnal and are attracted to lights, Powell adds. (Like porch lights!)
Its ancestors lived millions of years ago. Wikipedia tells us that a fossil species from the extant genus Merrifieldia originates from the Oligocene of France. The Oligocene, a geologic epoch of the Paleogene Period, occurred 33.9 million to 23 million years ago. Today some 160 species of plume moths live in North America.
So why did the plume moth visit us? Well, it's a common moth. The adults feed on nectar and pollen (plenty of that in our pollinator garden) and caterpillars of some of the species chew the leaves of garden plants, including geraniums and snapdragons (we have both).
We also have artichokes, and the larvae of one species, the artichoke plume moth, can be a pest when the vegetable is grown as a perennial, according to the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program website.
One thing is for sure: once you see the plume moth, you'll always recognize it.
"Eat your greens," they say.
Okay, we don't need any encouragement, but apparently many other folks need a push, a poke or a prod to eat cole crops, including cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, mustard, kale and kohlrabi.
Well, cabbage aphids need no encouragement. We spotted some dusty blue-gray aphids, Brevicoryne brassicae, slurping the very life blood out of our mustard plants yesterday in Vacaville, Calif. That's what they do, and they do it well, thank you.
Frankly, we're so accustomed to seeing green and yellow aphids, that the blue-gray colors are sort of a treat. Sort of. But they are a pest. These European natives can and do cause significant yield losses to cole crops (mustard family, Brassicaceae).
And they are not social distancing.
The UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) says: "They commonly occur in dense colonies, often covered with waxy droplets. They prefer to feed on the youngest leaves and flowering parts and are often found deep within the heads of cabbages or Brussels sprouts. The aphid has a simple life cycle with adult females giving birth to live offspring throughout the year in most parts of California. Both winged and wingless adults occur; the winged adults have a black thorax and lack the waxy coating. The aphid does not infest noncruciferous crops but can survive on related weed species when cole crops are not in the field."
UC IPM goes on to say that "Important natural enemies include lady beetles, syrphid fly larvae, fungal diseases, and the parasitic wasp, Diaeretiella rapae."
Nary a lady beetle (aka ladybug) in sight--but a syrphid (aka flower fly or hover fly) just landed.