Are Five-Spotted Hawk Moths Poisonous? Exploring the Truth

The five-spotted hawk moth, scientifically known as Manduca quinquemaculata, belongs to the family of Sphingidae moths. These moths are commonly seen in gardens and fields, hovering near flowers while feeding on nectar. They often give the impression of hummingbirds due to their hovering behavior and are also known as “hummingbird moths.”

Although the hawk moths themselves are not poisonous, their caterpillars, known as tobacco hornworms, can be found feeding on plants in the Solanaceae family, such as tomato, tobacco, pepper, and eggplant. These plants contain toxic alkaloids which can build up in the caterpillar’s body, making them potentially harmful to predators.

In summary, while it is important to note that the adult five-spotted hawk moth is not poisonous, its caterpillar stage can be harmful due to its diet of plants containing toxic substances. Always approach these creatures with caution and respect for their place in the ecosystem.

Five-Spotted Hawk Moth: Overview

Classification and Synonyms

The Five-Spotted Hawk Moth, scientifically known as Manduca quinquemaculata, belongs to:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Class: Insecta
  • Family: Sphingidae
  • Genus: Manduca
  • Subfamily: Sphinginae

This moth is also known as the Carolina Sphinx, Tomato Hornworm, and Tobacco Hornworm.

Physical Traits

The Five-Spotted Hawk Moth boasts some unique features:

  • Large, heavy-bodied with a long, pointed abdomen
  • Long, pointed forewings with some species possessing angled or irregular margins
  • Antennae that gradually widen and then narrow again

Range and Habitat

The Five-Spotted Hawk Moth can be found in various regions throughout the United States. Their caterpillars, known as Tomato and Tobacco Hornworms, are common pests in gardens, primarily feeding on tomato and tobacco plants.

Life Cycle of the Moth

Eggs and Oviposition

The life cycle of the five-spotted hawk moth begins with egg-laying. Female moths seek out plants, such as tomatoes or tobacco, on which to lay their eggs. A single female can lay about 200 eggs over a few days.

  • Eggs are small and spherical
  • Light green to yellow in color

Caterpillar and Larva

Once the eggs hatch, the Manduca sexta tobacco hornworm caterpillars emerge:

  • Bright green with white stripes
  • Have a horn-like structure on the abdominal end

Tobacco hornworms are often mistaken for tomato hornworms due to their similar appearance. While both caterpillars share similar features, some key differences exist:

Characteristic Tobacco Hornworm Tomato Hornworm
Abdominal Pattern “Seven diagonal lines” “V-shaped pattern”
Color of the Horn Reddish in color Black or dark blue

These caterpillars feed voraciously on the foliage of host plants until they are ready to enter the pupal stage.

Pupa and Overwinter

The fully-grown caterpillar drops to the ground and forms a pupa in the soil. Overwintering occurs in this stage, enabling the moth to withstand colder temperatures in a protective casing.

  • Pupae have a smooth, dark brown appearance
  • Possess a proboscis, or “jug-handle,” for future feeding purposes

Adults and Flight

Once development is complete, the adult moths emerge. The Carolina sphinx moth, for instance, has several key features:

  • Wingspan ranges from 3.75 to 4.75 inches
  • Forewings are much larger than hindwings
  • Active predominantly at dusk or during the night

After mating, female moths repeat the cycle and lay eggs on suitable host plants.

Host Plants and Food Sources

Caterpillar Diet

The five-spotted hawk moth caterpillar feeds mainly on plants from the Solanaceae family. Some common examples include:

  • Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum)
  • Tobacco (Nicotiana spp.)
  • Potato (Solanum tuberosum)

Additionally, other host plants for the caterpillar are Petunia (Petunia hybrida) and Bouncing Bet (Saponaria officinalis). Their diet consists mainly of leaves from these plants1.

Adult Moth Nectar Consumption

Adult five-spotted hawk moths, on the other hand, consume nectar from various flowers. Some favorite sources include:

  • Phlox (Phlox spp.)
  • Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)
  • Petunia (Petunia hybrida)

The moth’s long proboscis allows it to access the nectar from these flowers2.

Food Source Caterpillar Adult Moth
Solanaceae plants ✔️
Petunia hybrida ✔️ ✔️
Saponaria officinalis ✔️
Phlox spp. ✔️
Lonicera japonica ✔️

Pest Status and Identification

Impact on Tomato and Tobacco Fields

The five-spotted hawk moth, also known as the tobacco hornworm, is a common pest found in tomato and tobacco fields. Its caterpillar stage is known for causing significant damage to these crops. Some key impacts include:

  • Defoliation: The caterpillars consume large amounts of leaves, leading to reduced plant growth and weakened plants.
  • Fruit damage: They also feed on the fruits, causing direct losses to the yield.

Differentiating from Similar Species

The tobacco hornworm is often confused with its close relative, the tomato hornworm. However, they can be differentiated based on the following features:

  • Horn color: Tobacco hornworms have a red horn, while tomato hornworms have a black horn.
  • Lateral markings: Tobacco hornworms have diagonal white lines on their abdomen, whereas tomato hornworms have a series of V-shaped markings.
Feature Tobacco Hornworm Tomato Hornworm
Horn color Red Black
Abdomen markings Diagonal white lines V-shaped markings

When trying to identify these pests, it is essential to check for the presence of a horn on the caterpillar’s posterior end and observe the markings on their abdomen. By accurately identifying the hornworm species, appropriate control measures can be taken to protect your crops from these destructive pests.

Conservation and Poisonous Concerns

The five-spotted hawk moth (Manduca quinquemaculata) is not specifically mentioned as a bird of conservation concern in the 2021 report. However, it’s important to keep an eye on this species, which is found across a wide range of North America.

They inhabit areas from Southern Canada down to Florida and across the Great Plains, all the way to Mexico. The moth can also be spotted in the southeastern United States, particularly around the Gulf Coast.

The five-spotted hawk moth grows to be quite large, presenting a challenge for some predators. One unusual aspect of this moth is its green color, which provides excellent camouflage against leaves.

Regarding dangerous qualities, these moths are not known to be poisonous. However, their caterpillar stage, known as the tobacco hornworm, can be harmful to crops. The hornworm can cause extensive damage to tomato plants and tobacco fields.

States like Indiana and other southern states are particularly affected by the tobacco hornworm. But, despite the agricultural impact of the caterpillar stage, the adult moth, as mentioned earlier, does not pose a direct threat to humans or other animals through any form of poison.


  1. Sphinx Moths (Hawk Moths) | Missouri Department of Conservation
  2. Hornworms and “Hummingbird” Moths – 5.517 – Extension

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, 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 –


Subject: Caterpillar
Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada
September 10, 2013 4:37 pm
Manitoba canada – as big and thick as my little finger. They were all over this particular plant (?)
Signature: Carroll

Leafy Spurge Hawkmoth Caterpillar
Leafy Spurge Hawkmoth Caterpillar

Hi Carroll,
Did you polish your nails to match this Leafy Spurge Hawkmoth Caterpillar,
Hyles euphorbiae?  The Leafy Spurge Hawkmoth is native to northern Eurasia.  According to the Sphingidae of the Americas website:  “The leafy spurge hawk moth, Hyles euphorbiae (length: 2-3 cm, wingspan: 5-7 cm), was the first classical biological agent released against leafy spurge in the United States, with approval for introduction granted in 1965. Populations of this insect are present in several western states, including Montana, Idaho, North Dakota, Wyoming, Minnesota and Oregon, and now Washington (Spokane County; David Droppers; BAMONA). The moth was also introduced from Europe into Ontario, Canada, and then into Alberta where specimens are occasionally still taken. I recently received an image of larva (July 2003) from Neepawa, Manitoba.”  We are copying Bill Oehlke on our response and he may request permission to use your photos on his site.

Hornworms of the Leafy Spurge Hawkmoth
Hornworms of the Leafy Spurge Hawkmoth

Letter 2 – Whitelined Sphinx Caterpillars found in Desert


Subject:  a few more “bug photos” you might enjoy
Location:  Anza-Borrego Desert
March 2015
There were quite a few white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) caterpillars out in the Anza-Borrego desert during the wildflower bloom in early March of this year. We found there is quite a lot of variation in caterpillar patterns and eye color (note the green and orange-red eyes in the photo below).
Kind regards,
Lori in Altadena, CA

Whitelined Sphinx Caterpillars
Whitelined Sphinx Caterpillars

Thanks for sending us some additional images Lori.  We are posting your image of Whitelined Sphinx Caterpillars because we have been receiving numerous identification requests from Southern California in recent weeks.  In the future, please use our standard submission form located upon clicking the Ask What’s That Bug? link on our site.

Letter 3 – Xylophanes falco Caterpillar


2 pictures for you
After bemoaning the lack of good moth books, I just discovered your wonderful site. Thanks! This is a sphinx larva, full view (the best color) and close up of the beautiful false eye. I took the picture with my digital in the Chihuahuan Desert in far West Texas just a few days ago. There were about 8 larvae on the plant, all about the same size. Do you know what moth it will be? Thanks for the photos and i.d. of the beautiful Tursa moth. I’ve had one in my back yard, (it is strangely “tame” , allowing many photos while it sat on my hand) but had no idea of it’s identity – and it’s not in any of my insect or butterfly/moth books. I live in Central Texas. Can you tell me what the larva feed on?
Carol Ann Wadley

Hi Carol Ann,
We identified your Xylophanes falco Caterpillar on Bill Oehlke’s excellent website. It is in the same genus as the Tersa Sphinx, but it has no common name. The larvae feed on Bouvardia glaberrima in the madder family (Rubiaceae).


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