Five-Spotted Hawk Moth: Essential Facts Simplified

The Five-spotted Hawk Moth (Manduca quinquemaculata) is an intriguing species of moth that has captured the attention of gardeners and nature lovers alike. Known for their unique appearance and behavior, these moths are a fascinating subject for anyone interested in the natural world.

Five-spotted Hawk Moths are characterized by their large, heavy bodies and long, pointed abdomens. These moths are often seen hovering near flowers, where they feed on nectar through their very long proboscis, a tube-like mouthpart resembling a “tongue” source. The forewings of these moths are generally long and pointed, with some variations in the margins depending on the species source.

Five-Spotted Hawk Moth Overview

The Five-spotted Hawk Moth (Manduca quinquemaculata) is a fascinating insect belonging to the family Sphingidae. As a moth, it is a member of the Lepidoptera order, which includes butterflies and moths.

These moths have a remarkable life cycle that starts with eggs on plants and progresses through caterpillar, pupa, and adult stages.

Caterpillar Stage:

  • Green in color
  • Known as Tobacco or Tomato Hornworm
  • Feeds on Solanaceae family plants, such as potatoes and tomatoes

Pupa Stage:

  • Turns brown
  • Forms inside a cocoon

Adult Stage:

  • Moth with long, narrow wings
  • Characterized by a long, pointed abdomen
  • Feeds on nectar with its long proboscis

In terms of range, it can be found throughout North America.

Comparison Table

Feature Tomato Hornworm Tobacco Hornworm
Larva (caterpillar) color Green Green
Host plant Tomato Tobacco
Moth family Sphingidae Sphingidae
Adult moth color (abdomen) Striped pattern on the sides Slightly different striped pattern

Physical Characteristics

Colors and Patterns

The Five-spotted Hawk Moth (Manduca quinquemaculata) is a member of the Sphinx Moths family (Sphingidae), known for their distinct patterns and colors. Their bodies are covered with minute scales, typically gray or brownish shades, which often feature zig-zag patterns, V-shaped markings, and small white spots, making them quite unique and recognizable1.

Wingspan

The average wingspan of an adult Five-spotted Hawk Moth ranges between 8-12 cm (3-5 inches)2. Their wings are long and pointed, contributing to their intriguing flight pattern, resembling that of a hummingbird3.

Larva and Pupa Stages

When in the larval stage, these moths are commonly known as Carolina Sphinx or Tobacco Hornworms4. The larvae are characterized by their off-white to pale green color and a pointed projection on their posterior end5. As they grow and pass through various instars, the larvae feed on plants from the Solanaceae family, such as eggplant, pepper, and tomato6.

After reaching the final instar, the larvae burrow underground to pupate7. The pupa stage is marked by its distinct dark brown color and a protective outer layer. This stage prepares the moth for its adult life, as it emerges to pollinate plants such as Datura, Mirabilis, and Oenothera8.

Comparison Table: Five-Spotted Hawk Moth vs. Hummingbird Moth

Feature Five-Spotted Hawk Moth Hummingbird Moth
Color and Pattern Gray or brown, zig-zag pattern, V-shaped markings Mix of brown, green, and black with diagnostic bands on wings and tail
Wingspan 8-12 cm (3-5 inches) 4-6 cm (1.5-2.4 inches)
Pollination Preferences Datura, Mirabilis, Oenothera plants Flowers that are easy to hover nectar from, like bee balm, phlox, and lilacs
Larva and Pupa Stages Off-white to pale green larvae; dark brown pupa underground Green with black dots caterpillars; brown pupa that resembles a leaf

Life Cycle and Behavior

Egg Stage

The five-spotted hawk moth begins its life as an egg, typically laid on the leaves of host plants such as tomato, tobacco, potato, eggplant, and other members of the nightshade family. The eggs are small and round, usually hatch within a few days.

Larval Stage

Once hatched, the larvae emerge and are commonly known as tomato hornworms. These caterpillars are green or brown and feature:

  • Eight white chevrons on each side
  • A black “horn” at the end of the abdomen

These caterpillars feed on the foliage and sometimes fruits of their host plants, including the moonflower, species Mirabilis multiflora, and other nightshades.

Pupal Stage

After a few weeks of feeding and growth, the larval stage ends, and the caterpillar enters the pupal stage. During this time, the caterpillar:

  • Forms a brown, elongated pupa
  • Remains dormant as it undergoes metamorphosis

This stage may last several weeks to a few months, depending on environmental conditions.

Adult Stage

The final stage is the adult five-spotted hawk moth, also known as a sphinx moth. Adult hawk moths are typically large and heavy-bodied, with notable characteristics such as:

  • Long, pointed abdomens
  • Forewings that are long and pointed
  • Antennae that get gradually wider, then narrow again toward the tip

Adult moths hover near flowers to feed on nectar through their long proboscis, playing a vital role as pollinators in their ecosystem. They are active mainly during the night and are capable of maintaining high body temperatures to fly in cool conditions source.

Ecological Significance and Interactions

Pollination

The Five-spotted Hawk Moth (Manduca sexta) is an essential pollinator in many ecosystems. They primarily feed on nectar from flowers, which inadvertently aids in the pollination process. These moths are known for their:

  • Exceptional hovering ability
  • Long proboscis for nectar extraction

As pollinators, they primarily target plants within the Solanaceae family, promoting their successful reproduction.

Food Plant Relationships

Manduca sexta, also known as the Tobacco Hornworm, showcases a strong relationship with plants in the Solanaceae family. Their larvae feed on the foliage of these plants, which include:

  • Tobacco plants
  • Tomato plants
  • Potato plants

Although their feeding can be detrimental to the plants, the moths play an essential role in pollination for the ecosystem. This dual role creates a complex and unique relationship between the Five-spotted Hawk Moth and the plants they interact with.

Conservation and Management

Biological Control Agents

  • Trichogramma wasps are common biological control agents used to manage pest populations.
  • These tiny wasps lay eggs in host caterpillars, reducing the number of pests and their impact on the ecosystem.

In the case of the five-spotted hawk moth, Trichogramma wasps are a potential biological control agent to keep populations in check without harming the ecosystem.

Adaptive Strategies

  • Hawk moths are known for their adaptive strategies that help them thrive in various environments.
  • The five-spotted hawk moth is particularly well-adapted to cooler temperatures.

Five-spotted hawk moths exhibit unique adaptive strategies, such as shivering to warm up and maintaining high body temperatures to fly on cool nights.

Features Five-Spotted Hawk Moth Trichogramma Wasps
Size Large Tiny
Habitat Diverse Host-dependent
Temperature Adaptation Adapted to cool nights Warm environments
Role in Ecosystem Pollinator and pest Biological control agent

By understanding and employing these conservation and management techniques, we can help maintain a balanced ecosystem that supports the fascinating five-spotted hawk moth and other coexisting species.

Footnotes

  1. US Forest Service

  2. Missouri Department of Conservation

  3. MDC Teacher Portal

  4. Montana Field Guide

  5. Moth Photographers Group

  6. US Forest Service

  7. Missouri Department of Conservation

  8. MDC Teacher Portal

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Bedstraw Hawkmoth Caterpillar from Alaska

 

Subject: color I have not seen

Location: interior Alaska ( Fairbanks)
September 11, 2014 3:22 pm
Found this fellow in Interior Alaska today (Sep 11 2014) seems late in the season and I am not accustomed to seeing them in dark colors. Can you tell me what it is ?
Signature: Curious in AK

Gallium Sphinx Caterpillar
Bedstraw Hawkmoth Caterpillar

Dear Curious in Alaska,
This is a Bedstraw Hawkmoth Caterpillar and the species has a highly variable caterpillar with green individuals and tan individuals occurring as well as this black form.  See Sphingidae of the Americas for more information on the Bedstraw Hawkmoth.

Letter 2 – Gallium Sphinx Caterpillar

 

Subject: First time I have ever seen this
Location: Ashton, ID.
September 25, 2014 11:39 am
Hi, Stepped outside and almost stepped on this caterpillar? Since I have never seen this type before, just wondering what it could be. It is 3″ to 3.5″ long. It is Fall here with record high temps. Tomorrow we are headed downhill as far as temperatures and rain go. We are at about 5400 feet above sea level, just outside of Yellowstone.
Signature: Maggie

Gallium Sphinx Caterpillar
Gallium Sphinx Caterpillar

Dear Maggie,
This striking caterpillar is a Gallium Sphinx Caterpillar or Bedstraw Hawkmoth Caterpillar,
Hyles gallii, and you may read more about it on the Sphingidae of the Americas website.

 

Letter 3 – Death’s Head Hawkmoth Caterpillar from Switzerland

 

Subject:  Cedar
Geographic location of the bug:  Central Switzerland
Date: 07/25/2018
Time: 10:14 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  We build cedar greenhouses with wood imported from Canada via England.    A customer found this beautiful creature and we would like to know where he came from and how to care for him.
How you want your letter signed:  best regards : David

Death’s Head Hawkmoth Caterpillar

Dear David,
We are very confident this Death’s Head Hawkmoth Caterpillar,
Acherontia atropos, did not come from Canada, and though it is possible it might have come from England, chances are better it originated in Switzerland.  According to Breeding Butterflies:  “Originating from the continent of Africa and parts South-Europe (Kreta, Greece, Spain) the deathshead hawkmoth is a large species of hawkmoth that prefers warmer climates.  Interestingly, the moths are excellent migrants and can be found migrating all the way from Africa to North Europe and Russia, where they are spotted in countries such as France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Eastern Europe/Balkan, and Russia. Here they are also able to reproduce themselves here during the warmer months of summer and autumn – the larvae are sometimes found on potato, nightshade or privet –  but interestingly they are unable to survive the cold winters of Central and Northern Europe.  This means that every winter, their remaining populations in these parts of the world are systematically wiped out as most moths and larvae succumb and die in the cold weather. The populations in Greece, Spain and the continent of Africa are able to survive and often repopulate Central and Northern Europe again after migrating there in summer.”  According to UK Moths:  “The largest moth to appear in Britain, sporting a wingspan of up to 12 or 13cm, this is a striking species, though it is not native. Immigrants arrive from southern Europe, usually several in each year, during late summer and autumn.”  Minden Pictures has an image of a caterpillar taken in Switzerland.  We believe this individual hatched from an egg laid by a female Death’s Head Hawkmoth that flew north to Switzerland from a warmer, southern climate, and if Breeding Butterflies is to believed, it will not survive so far north to provide a future generation, unless of course global warming has affected the climate in Switzerland enough to allow future generations to survive.  It is also possible that a generation might survive in the climate control of your greenhouse.  Food plants are listed on Breeding Butterflies:  “Their host plants consist of a large selection of nightshades (Solanaceae) – among which are potato, tomato, tabacco, deadly nightshade and many more. Apart from nightshade they also feed on plants from the olive family (Oleaceae) including privet, ash tree, jasmin, lilac and more. They have also been reported to feed on cannabis and sometimes oleander. In the wild, larvae are most frequently found on  Ligustrum, Fraxinus, Solanum sp. (potato and tomato are very suitable), generally Oleaceae and Solanaceae. Also reported on Cannabis and Buddleia and are renowned for being able to feed on the more toxic kinds of nightshade.”  Your individual might not be interested in eating.  It might be ready to pupate.

Letter 4 – Agrius convolvuli Caterpillar perhaps

 

hello from Beijing — can u help pls?!
Hi from Beijing, China…!
Could you spare a moment to give some advice, pls? I found
a big fat caterpillar wandering across the car park where
we live and brought it home so that my daughter can watch
again the fascinating changes it will go thru. A search on
the web brought me to your site — great to see so many people
are “bug-aholics”, as I think I’m hooked! — and
I think what we have may be a pink spotted hawkmoth caterpillar.
Would you mind taking a look and telling me what you think?
More urgently, what does it eat? It was not found on any bush
and was in danger of being squashed so I “rescued”
it, but now it doesn’t seem to be eating any of the range
of vegetation I’ve offered — all of which grows in the vicinity
of where we found it. I read on your site about what some
of the hawkmoth caterpillars eat, but I actually don’t recognize
the plant names! Obviously, if you tell me the names of what
it eats, I’ll check online for pictures! How long can a cat’
go without food?! How does it seek food (generally, I assme
they’re hatched on the necessary plant, but as I say, this
guy was wandering across tarmac)? If I put it back where it
was found, is it likely to crawl to it’s food source? And
finally, if we are able to identify it’s fave munch, what
else should we provide to make it feel at home? (a stick?
earth? water?) Thank you so much for your help,
Jane

possibly resolved the mystery!
Hello again bugman
(Do you think you could add an “international buglover singles
dating” page to your site, pls?! Hee Hee!) I persisted with
my research and suspect that I have indeed identified my “bug”
correctly (pink spotted hawkmoth caterpillar) and it eats
morning glory leaves (living in Beijing, my nature knowledge
has shrunk so badly!) Thanks for a great site. I wish my daughter
could have teachers like you…I do my best! 🙂
Jane
Beijing, China

Hi Jane,
We like your idea of an International Buglover Singles Dating
page and will forward the idea to our web host as we are nearing
the launching point of our newly metamorphosed site. After
a bit of searching, we believe your caterpillar might be a
relative of the Pink Spotted Hawk Moth without a common name,
Agrias convolvuli, which we located on the Sphingidae
of the Eastern Palaearctic website
. It feeds on the leaves
of morning glories. Often when Sphinx Caterpillars are found
on the ground, they are getting ready to pupate. Loose moist,
but not wet, soil is all that is necessary for pupation as
they burrow underground.

Letter 5 – Beautiful Unknown Caterpillar is Tetrio Sphinx

 

(now identified thanks to Erika)

What’s That Bug?
Hello!
I found this caterpillar in our yard today and was wondering if you could help us identify the type. I’ve looked all over the web and found many that look close – but not with the strips. We live in South Florida (The Florida Keys) and don’t see many caterpillars. Thanks in advance!
The Alderman’s
P.S. Thanks for all the great information on your site!

Hi there Aldermans,
I have also tried unsucessfully to identify your beautiful caterpillar. Because you live in a tropical area there are many species that are not listed in books and on identification websites. We will continue to search.

Ed Note: August 23, 2009
We are working on our archive, subcategorizing the caterpillars, and we realized we never properly identified this Tetrio Sphinx Caterpillar.

Letter 6 – Pachylia syces syces

 

Caterpillar Identification
Hi,
My name is Kevin. I am from the USA but am studying Spanish in San Jose, Costa Rica, for a couple of months. My class found this caterpillar & have no idea what it is. Could you please help me? I have searched several internet sites but found nothing that seemed to match. It is hard to tell from the pictures, but it is about 4.5 inches long.
Dumbfounded Kid,
Kevin

Hi Kevin,
Caterpillar identification is often very difficult. At first, we thought there was a resemblance between your caterpillar and the Ficus Sphinx. When we researched Bill Oehlke’s site for close relatives, we found Pachylia syces syces. The caterpillar is said to resemble a Coral Snake and they thrash around and squeak. The species ranges from Mexico through Central America to Brazil and the larvae eat the leaves of various ficus species.

Thanks for helping
Hi, It’s Kevin again, otherwise known as “Dumbfounded Kid”. Over the weekend the caterpillar my class found turned into a chrysalis/coccoon. I have attached an updated photo with a scale for comparison. By the way, I am in 4th grade. What does Pachylia syces syces eat? Thanks, Dumbfounded Kid
P.S. The caterpillar definitely did a lot of thrashing but we never heard it make any sounds.

Hi Kevin,
The adults visit flowers and take nectar.

Letter 7 – Pine Sphinx

 

Coneheaded Caterpillar
Tue, Jul 7, 2009 at 6:25 AM
Hi there! I found this little caterpillar at Newport News Park in Newport News, Virginia on July 6, 2009… He must have fallen out of a tree as I found him on my shoulder… I’ve searched and searched for an ID on the internet but to no avail – the cone-shaped head seems to be unique as the majority I’ve looked at that come close to the rest of his appearance are round headed… I posted his pic on our newspaper’s website and now have a ton of folks wondering what he is – it was one of them that pointed me your way ;o) Any help you can provided would be greatly appreciated!!
Anna
Newport News, VA

Unknown Caterpillar
Unknown Caterpillar

Dear Anna,
We have spent well over a fruitless hour trying to identify your caterpillar.  Alas, we have given up and we hope one of our readers will have better luck than we have had.  Our best guess on this is that it is a butterfly caterpillar in the family Nymphalidae, possibly the Subfamily Satyrinae which includes the Wood Nymphs and Satyrs, or perhaps the subfamily Apaturinae, the Emperors.  Our second guess would be that it is some type of Skipper in the family Hesperidae.  Sadly, these families are not really well represented on the internet with regards to caterpillars.

Unidentified Caterpillar

Update:
Sun July 12, 2009
Greetings Anna and Daniel,
While this caterpillar may resemble something in the Satyrinae or Apaturinae, it’s actually a young MOTH.  Please compare your photo to these images of larvae from those two butterfly subfamilies:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/trombamarina/218855622/ (Satyrodes sp.)
http://bugguide.net/node/view/231428 (Asterocampa celtis)
Let me send an e-mail to Dave Wagner at the University of Connecticut, who’s the leading authority on US moth caterpillars.
Best wishes,
Keith Wolfe

Update from Keith Wolfe:
Monday, July 13, 2009
Hi Anna,
According to Prof. Dave Wagner, and Ryan’s brief comment, this caterpillar will metamorphose into a Pine Sphinx moth (one of four species in the Lapara genus of the Sphingidae family).  The green and white striping is an effective camouflage apparently shared by a number of butterfly and moth larvae that feed on pine needles.
Best wishes,
Keith

Ed. Note:
We are linking to Bill Oehlke’s posting of a Northern Pine Sphinx, Lapara bombycoides.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Thank you so very much for your time, effort, and energy in searching out the identity of this little guy!!  Please also pass along my thanks to Keith Wolfe, Prof Dave Wagner, and Ryan who spent their time researching this too!  Y’all are just GREAT – I’m going to let our folks on the newspaper website know right this sec and will use the link to your page to share…
THANK YOU – THANK YOU – THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Anna

Letter 8 – Lassaux's Sphinx Caterpillar feeding on milkweed relative

 

Subject: Big caterpillar
Location: Austin, TX
July 24, 2012 11:22 pm
Hi Daniel, I found this caterpillar on oxypetalum, a milkweed relative. It’s about 2.5 – 3” long. Sorry the pictures aren’t great. The caterpillar has white knobs on it head. Thanks.
Signature: Julie

Lassaux’s Sphinx Caterpillar on Oxypetalum

Hi Julie,
This is sure a distinctive caterpillar.  Thank you for supplying a food plant name as that usually makes identification much easier.  We started with a web search of caterpillar and
Oxypetalum and we found a photo of several Monarch Caterpillars and a mention that they can feed on Oxypetalum caeruleum.  We then learned that the plant is also called Tweedia or Blue Flowered Vine on Forest Farm and Dave’s Garden has a comment that Monarch Caterpillars will feed on it.  We couldn’t find anything online that resembled your caterpillar by searching the food plant, but we did learn quite a bit about the plant including that it is from South America.  Other than to say we believe this is most likely a moth caterpillar and it reminds us of the Prominent Moth Caterpillars in the family Notodontidae which is well represented on BugGuide, especially the subfamily Heterocampinae, we are quite clueless.  Perhaps one of our readers will be able to assist in this identification.

Lassaux’s Sphinx Caterpillar feeding on Tweedia

A friend has identified it for me. It is a Lassaux’s Sphinx (Erinnyis lassauxii) caterpillar. I thought it might be a type of Prominent Moth, too; but it is in the Sphingidae  family. Thank you for help, though. I enjoy your website.
Julie

Hi Julie,
Thanks so much for writing back to us with the identification.  We would never have thought of a Sphinx Moth because of the lack of a caudal horn.  The photos on the Sphingidae of the Americas website are an exact match.

 

Letter 9 – Lettered Sphinx Caterpillar

 

Sulfur Butterfly Caterpillar?
Location:  Great Smoky Mountains, Cosby, TN
May 20, 2012
Hi Daniel and Lisa,
After spending an hour on The BugGuide and your marvelous site, Sulfur Butterfly Caterpillar is a close to an identification that I could come.  I thought, due to the distinctive markings and coloring, it wouldn’t be hard to ID, but there I go thinking again!
Relying on your expertise…one more time!
Many Thanks, as always,
R.G. Marion
Great Smoky Mountains in May
Cosby, TN

Lettered Sphinx Caterpillar

Hi RG,
The caudal horn indicates that this is a Sphinx Moth Caterpillar, and upon searching the Sphingidae of the Americas website for Tennessee species, we determined that this is most likely
Darapsa myron, the Virginia Creeper Sphinx.  Though the colors do not match any images we have found, there is much variation in the colors of different individuals.  We will copy Bill Oehlke on our response to see if he can confirm our identification. 

Thank you so much.  Not just for the timely ID, but now I know which end is which! 😀  ‘Preciate your time.
R.G.

You are funny R.G.  The caterpillar moves in the direction the head is facing.

Correction:  Lettered Sphinx, not Virginia Creeper Sphinx
Thanks to a comment from Ryan, we have made the correction.  You may view images of the Lettered Sphinx Caterpillar on BugGuide and on Sphingidae of the Americas.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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