Q. A huge (2 1/2-3 inch) brown caterpillar was chewing up our white pentas and then it disappeared. The caterpillar had a huge “eyespot” and a "tail".
J.K., Coral Gables
The caterpillar you found was the tersa sphinx moth caterpillar. This species feeds almost exclusively on pentas in South Florida.
Sphinx moth caterpillars are also known as hornworms because most have a prominent “tail.”
Like most moths, adult sphinx moths are night fliers but sphinx moths are able to hover when flying and can be quite large. They are frequently mistaken for hummingbirds when feeding on flower nectar at night. If there are just a few caterpillars on your plants, watch and enjoy them. However, if you find that there is too much damage occurring (more than half of the foliage has been eaten), some of the caterpillars can be handpicked and destroyed.
Adrian Hunsberger is an entomologist/horticulturist with the UF/IFAS Miami-Dade Extension office. Write to Plant Clinic, 18710 SW 288th St., Homestead, FL 33030; e-mail email@example.com.