Vine Hawk moths are beautiful creatures with streaks of silver on their back. They are excellent pollinators and do not cause humans any harm. But is vine hawk mouth caterpillar dangerous? Let’s find out.
You can find vine hawk moths predominantly in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
These moths belong to the Sphingidae family and are also called silver-striped hawk moths due to the intricate silver-colored markings on their long bodies.
They are the object of attention for many collectors of creepy crawlies.
While the adult moths are harmless, the caterpillars can cause severe damage to host plants. Let’s understand what harm they do and what you can do about it.
What Is This Bug?
Vine hawk moths (Hippotion celerio) belong to the Lepidoptera order of the Insecta class in the Sphingidae family.
This is one of the largest families of moths in the world, and people usually know them as sphinx moths or hawk moths. The family has as many as 1,450 moth species under it.
Vine Hawk moths are one of the few that do well in captivity; therefore, many people breed them as pets.
These moths are usually crepuscular (nocturnal); their feeding and other activities happen at night. During the day, they like to spend time resting on grass, walls, or rocks.
They are good flyers and look somewhat like hummingbirds when flying. They have a long mouthpart for sucking nectar from flowers which looks almost like a hummingbird’s beak.
As adults, their primary food is nectar from flowers, and this also makes them excellent pollinators that are beneficial to plants.
Unfortunately, these bugs are notorious pests in their larval stage. They infest and defoliate plants like impatiens and grapevines.
Where Does It Come From?
Vine hawk moths are natives of countries that fall in tropical climates of Asia and Africa. They are migratory and move to southern Europe or Australia during summers.
You can often find these moths in gardens and parks, fluttering near flowers. They are also common in the natural wilderness and the edges of woodlands and grasslands.
What Does It Look Like?
Adult hawk moths are brown. Their forewings have light brown stripes, with the color getting lighter near the edges. The hind wings have additional reddish-brown markings.
The average wingspan of the moth is between 2.3 – 3 inches.
The hawk moth larvae start out as small and green but later grow to become quite big. Their colors change to brown, red, or gray as they age.
There are two pairs of distinctive eye spots on these caterpillars’ first and second abdominal segments.
The large eyespots on the vine hawk moth caterpillar look almost like eyes
While the first eyespot is large and very clearly visible, the second eye spot is smaller.
The eye spots are a defense mechanism against predators, who get confused when they see the large eyes.
The rest of the abdominal segments have lines across the body, and the tail has a horn-like appendage curved backward.
The larvae can grow up to as long as 3 inches. Towards their final instar stages, they start to become browner, and the pupae are completely light brown.
Is It Dangerous?
Adult hawk moths are not dangerous for either humans or animals; they are neither venomous nor do they bite. However, if you ingest one by mistake, you might need medical attention.
The caterpillars are also non-venomous, but gardeners see them as pests because of their huge appetites. They can completely defoliate plants and destroy crops.
Can It Sting or Bite?
This species of moth do not have a mouth as adults; hence they cannot bite anything, let alone humans.
However, the caterpillar can sting you in the larval stage and cause skin irritation. Remember: stings are not the same as bites; bites are only caused when an insect uses its mouth.
These caterpillars have stinging hairs on their bodies, which go away once they pupate.
Is It Poisonous or Venomous?
As mentioned earlier, neither adults nor larvae of hawk moths are poisonous or venomous.
The larvae have fine hairs, which can sting humans when we touch them. The stings can cause minor localized swelling and red bumps that last only a few minutes to hours.
Is It Harmful to Plants?
As adults, hawk moths help sustain plants by pollination. When the adults feed on nectar, their haustellum (beak-like structure) collects pollen.
They can fly long distances and help spread the pollen. Research has shown that these moths can carry it as far as 18 miles!
On the other hand, hawk moth caterpillars are a pest for certain plants like tomatoes, potatoes, and even catalpa trees.
At its worst, this caterpillar can cause the following damage:
- Stunted growth
- Half eaten leaves
- Chewed stems
However, the damage is often not as severe as other pests like aphids.
What Plants is it Attracted To?
Adult hawk moths are attracted to scented tubular flowers like Fuschia, carrot, wIllowherb, and papaya. Their flowers have ample nectar to suckle on.
Caterpillars are voracious eaters that primarily feed on foliage. Their common favorites include Himalayan balsam, willowherb, rosebay, bedstraw, grapevines, impatiens, and rumex plants.
How To Protect Your Crops Against This Caterpillar?
Hawk moth caterpillars can cause damage to your crop if they are left unchecked. It is important to identify the infestation before it is too late. Some of the common visible signs include
- Stunted shoots that seem to have stopped growing.
- You can spot small green larvae in clusters along the upper leaves of the plants.
- Leaves have visible holes in them.
Here are a few ways you can control the spread of the damage.
- If in small numbers, you can remove the larvae by hand and crush their heads manually.
- Plowing the surrounding soil a few inches deep can expose the pupae. Predatory birds and insects will take care of the rest.
- Natural pesticides like neem oil and Bacillus thuringiensis are also helpful in removing larvae without harming other insects.
- Bio-pesticides include Pyrethrin, and Spinosad can also work on them.
- Parasitoids like Snellenius hippotionus, Braconidae, and Palexorista sp can naturally eradicate the caterpillars.
If nothing else works, you might also turn to pesticides. Some common chemical pesticides used include 4%Phosalone, and 5% Malathion.
The first round of dusting is done a month after sowing, and the second phase is carried out 45 days after the first session.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are hawk moths harmless?
Yes, hawk moths are harmless to humans, pets, and other animals. These moths are non-venomous and non-poisonous. They even help pollinate plants.
However, hawk moth caterpillars are voracious eaters of foliage and can pose a threat to a few types of plants if left unchecked.
What does a vine hawk moth caterpillar eat?
Hawk moth caterpillars are known for feeding on plant leaves and can be seen on the underside of the leaves during day time.
They feed exclusively on plants like Himalayan balsam, willowherb, rosebay, and bedstraw. In gardens, these caterpillars are commonly seen attacking grapevine and Fuschia plants.
What eats hawk moth caterpillar?
Insects like ladybugs are commonly known to feed on caterpillars of any species. The ladybugs attack the larvae when they are small and have just hatched.
Braconid Wasps are among the most dangerous predators for hawk moth caterpillars as they use the moth larvae as an exclusive food source for their babies.
Do hawk moths bite or sting?
Hawk moth adults do not have a mouth to bite. While they do have a haustellum, it is not strong enough to bite. The caterpillars do not have a mouth to bite, either.
They are covered in fine hairs or stings that can cause skin irritation and rashes.
The Good Adults and the Naughty Kids!
Hawk moth adults are crucial for the survival of many plant species because of their excellent pollination abilities.
However, the vine hawk moth caterpillars can cause severe damage to some plants because they feed on their leaves.
Careful control can help utilize the species as pollinators while minimizing damage from them at the caterpillar stage. Thank you for reading!
The distinctive eyespots of the vine hawk moth caterpillar make them a hot favorite among bug enthusiasts.
Go through some of the many emails we have received from our readers over the years, sharing pics and requesting us information about these cute looking bugs.
Letter 1 – Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar from Australia
Name that bug?
Location: Perth, Western Australia
May 13, 2011 3:50 am
We have passed this around our office (staff of over a hundred), and no one has been able to identify.
Please help us!!
We quickly identified your caterpillar as Hippotion celerio on the Butterfly House website devoted to the Lepidoptera of Australia. It is commonly called a Gabi Moth or Vine Hawkmoth. The Butterfly House website indicates: “This Caterpillar occurs world-wide. It can occur in several different colour forms: green, brown, red or dark grey. It usually has an eyespot each side of the first and second abdominal segments, those on the first segment being larger. There are variable cryptic stripes and bands along the rest of the body. The Caterpillar has a tailhorn curved slightly backwards which tapers to a point.” This is actually an Old World species and it is not found in North America or South America. According to the Sphingidae of the Western Palaearctic website, it is described as: “A notable migrant in most years from tropical Africa and India to the western Palaearctic region. In warm years, new colonies may even be established in North Africa and Europe, so the delineation between resident and migrant ranges cannot be clearly defined. It is, however, resident in the Canary Islands, and probably also in the Azores and along the Atlantic coast of Morocco. It is certainly resident in many areas of the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula (Pittaway, 1979b), and Egypt (Badr et al., 1985). Extra-limital range. Tropical Africa, Asia and Australia, with occasional records from northern New Zealand.” The caterpillar in your photo is reacting as though it was threatened based on this information on the Sphingidae of the Western Palaearctic website: “As with most larvae exhibiting anterior eye-spots, the head is retracted when the larva is alarmed, expanding the large eye-spots on the first abdominal segment. When feeding, it rarely consumes the whole of a leaf; shoots with quarter- or half-eaten leaves often indicate the presence of a larva. Whereas young larvae may be found beneath a leaf, fully-grown specimens usually rest away from the feeding area, farther down the stem.” This species is known to feed on grape as well as numerous other plants.
Letter 2 – Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar from South Africa
Location: Somerset West, Cape Town
April 11, 2013 10:30 pm
Hi – these caterpillars ate a flourishing pot of impatiens overnight last week. They are about five centimetres long, very fat, have two ”eyes” on the front of the head, and a spike at the end of the body. They are greenish-brown coloured. They didn’t react when touched – no curling. Do you know what they are. I’ve never had them in my garden before – not that I have seen. I live in Somerset West, outside Cape Town.
This is a Hornworm, the harmless caterpillar of a Sphinx Moth or Hawkmoth in the family Sphingidae. We did a web search for South African species and found this posting on Caterpillar Blog identified as Hippotion celerio. We then searched that name and found a nice posting on Butterfly House that includes stamps with images of the adult moth which is called the Vine Hawkmoth or Gabi Moth. The Sphingidae of the Eastern Palaearctic also provides some good information.
Letter 3 – Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar from Australia
Subject: Caterpillar identification
Location: Adelaide, South Australia
October 23, 2013 12:40 am
I am hoping that you are able to please assist me in identifying a caterpillar that we have found in the garden. It is on our grape vine and about the width and size of your index finger. We are currently halfway through spring.
We live in South Australia, and are puzzled as to what sort it is and have spent endless hours trawling the internet.
Any information you can provide is greatly appreciated.
We believe we have correctly identified your Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar, Hippotion celerio, thanks to this identification on the Natural History Museum website and this photo from Project Noah. One of the best places to learn more about the Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar is the Sphingidae of the Eastern Palaearctic website.
Letter 4 – Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar from Australia
Subject: grub like – perth Australia
Location: perth, Australia
May 17, 2014 5:03 am
Found 3 of these larvae/grub like thing in my back yard perth Australia. Don’t know where they came from had one first put him out in a grass area and the next day I found two more. Seem to have a mouth that retracts into the body when startled.
Its almost like a big caterpillar.
Just want to know if they are dangerous. Just got a new puppy so want to be safe.
Signature: thanks for your help
Letter 5 – Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar from Australia
Subject: Please tell me what this is
March 19, 2016 12:42 am
I saw this snail big thing once and didn’t even know what on earth it could be then saw it a second time and took a photo, is it possible to find out what it is?? The thing never even blinks
This Hornworm is a Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar, Hippotion celerio, and we confirmed its identity on Butterfly House. The reason it never even blinked is that the “eyes” are actually markings known as ocelli that have evolved to fool predators into thinking the toothsome Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar is actually a dangerous predator with large eyes.
Letter 6 – Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar from Australia
Subject: Very Strange Grub
Location: Northern ACT, Australia
December 13, 2016 6:37 pm
I found a very strange grub underneath my sliding door. It is rather small, it is green mostly and has an interesting pattern on its body. It appears to have two fake eyes on the top of its head and has a barb on the rear of the bug. It doesn’t have legs which is why I am calling it a grub. It is not worm like. It is highly active when I touch it with a straw. It doesn’t move without stimulation. It’s probably about the same size of the top half of your thumb and about as wide. The sliding door where it is currently hiding is between the kitchen and the outdoor area which contains gardens and lawn.
Signature: Sincerely, Anonymous
Your Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar, Hippotion celerio, is a wide-ranging species found across Australia as well as many other parts of the world. You can read more about the Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar on Butterfly House.
Letter 7 – Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar from Australia
Subject: Green bug with long nose?
Location: Western Australia
April 3, 2017 5:40 am
Found in Geraldton, Western Australia. Really curious to find out what it is!!
This distinctive Hornworm is a Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar, Hippotion celerio, which we identified on the Butterfly House website where it states: “This Caterpillar occurs world-wide. It can occur in several different colour forms: green, brown, red or dark grey. It usually has an eyespot each side of the first and second abdominal segments, those on the first segment being larger.” The eyespots may act as protective mimicry if a predator mistakes a tasty caterpillar for a larger threat, and the Caterpillar’s behavior, as explained on Butterfly House, supports that: “When disturbed, the caterpillar curls into the shape of a letter ‘C’, tucks its head under its thorax, and expands the segments with the eyespots. No doubt these distract and deter possible predators.” Since this species has such a wide range, it is known by different common names in different locations.
Letter 8 – Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar from Australia
Location: Renmark South Australia
April 10, 2017 8:38 pm
Hi I found this caterpillar in my grapevine today. I’ve not seen anything like it. Could you tell me what sort is it and is it harmful to us?
Cultivated grape is one of a list of plants on Butterfly House that serve as larval food plants for the Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar, Hippotion celerio. The Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar is not dangerous to humans.
Letter 9 – Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar from Australia
Subject: Moth Caterpiller
Location: Adelaide south Australia
April 12, 2017 7:06 am
Found this in a nature reserve behind our house in Seacliff (near Adelaide) Australia. Any idea what this is?
Signature: Stuart Snyder
This is a Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar, Hippotion celerio. We just posted a green individual this morning. According to Butterfly House: “This Caterpillar occurs world-wide. It can occur in several different colour forms: green, brown, red or dark grey. It usually has an eyespot each side of the first and second abdominal segments, those on the first segment being larger.”
Letter 10 – Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar from Cyprus
Subject: Green Caterpillar
Geographic location of the bug: Cyprus
Time: 09:32 AM EDT
I noticed this rather large caterpillar in southern Cyprus and just wanted to know what type it is and wether it will become a butterfly or a moth. It had yellow circles going down the sides of its body and was smooth with no hairs. It also had a little spike at the rear end.
How you want your letter signed: Jo-Ann
Though your camera angle is not ideal for identification purposes, we are able to barely view the caudal horn indicating this is a Hornworm in the family Sphingidae. Based on your description and location, and that the plant it is feeding upon appears to be a grape vine, we believe this is a Vine Hawkmoth Caterpillar, and Project Noah includes an individual sighted on Cyprus.