Monday, September 8, 2008

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction!

I got a call from my neighbor, Jason, who lives behind me (he's also the one who found the Ichneumon wasp a couple of weeks ago). When I walked in the back yard his son, Isaac, said excitedly, "It's a caterpillar with eggs on its back!" I asked if it was on their tomato plants; when they said "yes" I knew immediately what they had.

A Parasitized Tomato Horn Worm
(click on photo to enlarge)

It was a Tomato Horn Worm (Manduca quinquemaculata), a sphinx moth caterpillar that had been parasitized by a small braconid wasp. The wasp had laid her eggs inside the caterpillar several weeks ago. The larvae hatched and began to eat the caterpillar alive. When they were finished eating, they tunneled outside the caterpillar and spun these white coccoons on its back. Soon the wasps will mature, chew their way out of the cocoons and start the cycle all over again. The tiny wasps are a good form of natural pest control. So, if you find a caterpillar that has cocoons like this in your garden, leave it alone and let nature take its course.

The 8 small yellow and orange dots on the sides of the caterpillar's abdomen are the spiracles, the holes used for breathing. The species name quinquemaculata means "5 spots". Caterpillars do not have compound eyes like adult insects, they have simple eyes (these small eyes can be seen on the head if you enlarge photo by clicking on it). The simple eyes can just detect light and dark.

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