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Hummingbird Moth Caterpillar, Hemaris diffinis – Facts and Myths

Hummingbird Moth Caterpillar, Hemaris diffinis – Facts and Myths

There’s More Than One kind of Hornworm – Don’t Kill the Good Ones

Don’t kill that hummingbird moth caterpillar – it is NOT the tomato enemy you might think it is.

We’re dealing with two different caterpillars. One is good for your garden, the other one is not, especially if you’re growing tomatoes.

Every year we go through this conversation that begins with people talking about hating to kill the tomato hornworms because they love the hummingbird moths. A flood of comments ensue on what people do — or do not do — to these, but one thing in common is that most people in these conversation threads think that the tomato hornworm turns into the hummingbird moth.

MYTH: The tomato hornworm does not turn into a hummingbird moth.

Wrongly Accused and Condemned

The hummingbird moth caterpillar is often mistaken for the tomato hornworm. However, it’s a case of mistaken identification. The problem is that both are called hornworms because both are caterpillars with horns.

The devastating tomato hornworm grows up to be a very different kind of moth than the hummingbird moth. The tomato hornworm DOES NOT become the much beloved pollinator known as the Hummingbird Moth.

FACT: The tomato hornworm DOES NOT become the hummingbird moth, Hemaris diffinis.

The Hummingbird Moth – Hemaris Diffinis – The GOOD Horned Caterpillar

The Hummingbird moth, Hemaris diffinis, has clear wings, giving it the common name of clearwing moth.

Hummingbird Moth Latin Name

Hemaris diffinis

Hummingbird Moth Common Names

  • Clearwing Moth
  • Hummingbird Moth
The tomato hornworm DOES NOT become the hummingbird moth, Hemaris diffinis.
hummingbird-caterpillar-moth-GardensAll

Hummingbird Moth Caterpillar — Hemaris Diffinis – Do NOT KILL THIS CATERPILLAR!!!

The hornworm caterpillar grows up to be the lovely hummingbird moth. This is NOT the tomato hornworm, though it’s a common mistake to assume it is.

Please careful note the difference between the two caterpillars. You will see them side-by-side further below.

Hemaris Diffinis Larvae - Hornworm caterpillar becomes the hummingbird moth - Image from NDSU.edu
Hemaris Diffinis Larvae – Hornworm caterpillar becomes the hummingbird moth – Image from NDSU.edu

Hummingbird Moth – Hemaris Diffinis

Beautiful Hummingbird Moth-clearwing-Hemaris Diffinis on purple and pink flowers
Hummingbird Sphinx Moth – image by Alain Audet from Pixabay

Tomato Hornworm Caterpillar – Manduca quinquemaculata – The BAD Horned Caterpillar

The tomato hornworm does NOT grow up to become the hummingbird moth. That’s a common myth and misunderstanding. When we first posted this, that’s what we thought too. But it’s not so. See the photo comparisons below.

The confusion is understandable, because both kinds of caterpillars are horned and look a lot alike. The good news is that with a little bit of study and memorization of details, you will be able to know the difference when you see them in the garden.

hummingbird moth caterpillar, hummingbird moth, tomato horn worm
The pesky tomato horn worm, DOES NOT become the hummingbird moth. It becomes the 5 spotted hawk moth.

The Dreaded Tomato Hornworm Caterpillar Becomes the 5 Spotted Hawk Moth, NOT the Hummingbird Moth!

The tomato hornworm caterpillar is a beautiful specimen of a moth, commonly called Five Spotted Hawk Moth. The botanical name for the tomato hornworm is Manduca quinquemaculata.

However, it’s former incarnation is an unwelcome garden tomato nemesis: the tomato hornworm. The 5 spotted hawk moth, or

What Do Tomato Hornworms Turn Into? The 5 Spotted Hawk Moth, Manduca quinquemaculata

The moth that began as the tomato hornworm is now a 5 Spotted Hawk Moth, Manduca quinquemaculata – Image via Wikipedia

Appearance of the Tomato Hornworm vs. the Hummingbird Caterpillar

Hummingbird Moth Caterpillar Description

  • Green body
  • Black dots across each side of body length
  • Single tail horn has black tip
  • Black tipped feet
  • 5 pairs of primary feet
  • Black underbelly

Tomato Hornworm Caterpillar Description

  • Green Body
  • White diagonal stripes & black dots surrounded by white circles
  • Single tail horn has reddish tip
  • Solid green feet
  • 5 pairs of primary feet
  • Green underbelly

Hummingbird Caterpillar Moth Vs. Tomato Hornworm

My simple memorization tip for these:

Simple spots are safe.
Diagonal stripes are diabolical.

Hummingbird Caterpillar Moth Vs. Tomato Hornworm

What Does the Hummingbird Moth Caterpillar Look Like?

If you’re wondering what the hummingbird moth and caterpillar look like compared to the tomato hornworm and moth, you can see all four of those in the next photo.

What Does the Hummingbird Moth Caterpillar Look Like? If you're wondering what the hummingbird moth and caterpillar look like compared to the tomato hornworm and moth, you can see all four of those in this photo.
Comparison of the Hummingbird Caterpillar Moth and Tomato Hornworm Moth

Hummingbird Moth on Purple Flowered Azaleas – by GardensAll

We love seeing these little guys pollinating in our yard and garden and thought you might as well. In fact several GardensAll community members have shared theirs as well, which you can find further below.

Hummingbird Moth by GardensAll.com

Hummingbird Moth Video

Contributed by Tamara Hoard

Here’s a video of a hummingbird moth shared by Planting for Retirement community member, Tamara Hoard.

Hummingbird Moth Video – by Tamara Hoard for GardensAll.com

Hummingbird Moth – contributed by Sabina Kelly

You can hear the humming of the wings of this busy little hummingbird moth engaged with the lovely magenta blossoms of the bee balm plant.

Hummingbird Moth – contributed by Sabina Kelly for GardensAll.com

Hummingbird Moth on Flame Azaleas

Garden Guests – Butterflies on Joe Pye

The butterfly bush is living up to its name by attracting a flurry of beautiful butterflies. Now, the Joe Pye Weed, a tall member of the milkweed clan, is blooming and vying for attention. In fact, it will need trimming after blooms, because it’s encroaching into our driveway.

Monarch Butterflies on Butterfly Bush. #MonarchButterfly #ButtrerflyBush, #JoePyeWeed #PlantsForButterflies #Butterfly
Tiger swallowtails feasting on Joe Pye Weed blossoms

But we won’t trim the Joe Pye Weed until all blossoms are completely brown and dry because we’ve seen butterflies on the blossoms even after the blooms appear to have lost all bloom.

We’ve seen the typical swallowtails like the tiger and the black. And there’s this oddball creature that makes one look twice. It resembles a hummingbird with an antenna.  Hmmmm. Turns out, it’s a moth aptly named the “hummingbird moth”. 

Tiger swallowtails feasting on Joe Pye weed

More Contributions from the Community

Host Plants That Caterpillars Eat

Missing from this article is a comparison of the host plants that the caterpillars eat. You will find the tomato horn caterpillars on tomato and tobacco plants, but not the hummingbird moth caterpillars. Hummingbird moths, good host plants include arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum), coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) and dwarf honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera). The caterpillars are finicky eaters and are chemically compatible with these plants, shunning other species.

I avoid getting tomato horn worms by planting marigolds with the tomato plants. The strong smell keeps them away
~Mary Crittenden, Manchester, CT

Close up of Hummingbird Moth on Yellow Lilies

Kara Perkins shared this awesome photo of a hummingbird moth enjoying a patch of yellow lilies in her yard in Johannesburg, Michigan.

Hummingbird moth on yellow lilies – Image by Kara Perkins via GardensAll.com
hummingbird moth caterpillar, hummingbird moth facts. #HummingbirdMoth #HemarisDiffinis #HornwormCaterpillar #PlantsForButterflies #Butterfly
hummingbird-caterpillar-moth-GardensAll
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Want to submit your photos, videos and/or article content for publication? We love to share! growers@gardensall.com