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The large caterpillars of this attractive moth are regularly found in gardens in late summer.
Elephant hawk moth caterpillar
The elephant hawk moth is a large pink and olive green moth but it is the larvae that are often found in gardens. The caterpillars are usually brown and reach 8cm in length with a ‘horn’ at one end.
Large (80-85mm long) brown or green caterpillars with black and pink eye spots and a small black horn on the rear end. Usually found in late summer to early autumn. Extensive damage to garden plants is rare, but caterpillar feeding does cause some defoliation.
The caterpillars of this moth feed on a variety of plants including rosebay willowherb, Himalayan balsam and bedstraw. In gardens they are most commonly found on fuchsia.
As damage is rarely severe or widespread, there is usually no need to take control measures against this insect. If damage is likely to be extensive when feeding caterpillars are found they can be removed by hand and possibly transferred to one of the wildflower hosts such as rosebay willowherb.
The English name of this insect is derived from the shape and behaviour of the caterpillar. The head and thorax are distinctly more slender than the rest of the body and, this can be said to look like an elephant's trunk. When alarmed, the caterpillar pulls its head into its thorax which becomes swollen; this causes the two pairs of eye spot markings at the front end of the body to become more prominent. This gives the impression of a large false head, a defensive mechanism thought to make the caterpillar look snake-like and unappetising to its predators.
Since the caterpillars do most of their feeding at night they often go unnoticed until fully fed, when they crawl off the food plant and look for somewhere to pupate. At this stage the caterpillars may be found on lawns or garden paths as they seek a place where they can burrow into the soil.
This insect overwinters as a pupa and emerges in May of the following year as a large (wing span 62-72mm) pink and olive green moth. Like most moths the adults are night-flying and so often go unseen unless attracted to light.
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