Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Green Tobacco Hornworm: Our First Pet

Let me tell you a story about our first family pet.

The kids and I were outside, watering and checking on our monster tomato plant. I was right up in it, crouching under a mass of branches trying to water directly at the roots when I glance over a notice a huge green caterpillar munching away. "OH NO!" I exclaimed.

(This, I think, did not set the tone of 'nothing to be afraid of' to poor Bennett, who has a very strong shudder reflex.)

(Not my photo - it's from the web)

I bring the kids over, June is immediately worried about its well-being and Bennett is immediately shuddering and looking at it with trepidation. I can't blame him - these caterpillars are big (about the size of my middle finger) and have creepy markings on them that look like they have 30 eyes.

June and I spring into action, grab one of my quart-sized canning jars and make a little habitat for the guy. We have a pet! How fun! Let's see if he turns into a butterfly!

We step back outside and notice another caterpillar. And another. And another. Oh no.

I know I can't leave these things because they'll demolish my plant, so I task the kids with finding them (Bennett was shockingly good at spotting them) and I picked them off. June worries about them,  so I tell her that I'll put them in our green waste bin and they'll have a grand time in there. I couldn't just kill them in front of her and, to be honest, it was giving me the heebie jeebies.)

So they went off to that Great Compost Heap in the Sky.

So now we have a worm and a habitat. 

On basically day two of kindergarten, June comes home telling me that her teacher says she can bring her caterpillar to school. I can't send a glass container, so now I've got the drill out and am making holes in the lid of my biggest tupperware container. I'm building a canopy of twigs to keep the caterpillar away from its waste, which was plentiful

In case it's unclear, I'd become fully invested in this thing by now. I'm reading up about what kind of caterpillar it is, what its stages would be, what it should eat, etc.

The kids loved it too. Their best friends had recently gotten a dog so I think June and Bennett took their new pet as seriously as ol' Delta the labrador. 

(June did take it to school. Apparently all the kids got to touch the caterpillar and I just felt this overwhelming sense of appreciation and pity for this long-suffering creature.)

My parents visited and those two dear souls indulged me and my obsession. "Should we try feeding it a tomato? I think we should!" and "I think it's entering it's roaming stage!!"

I read online that, when it's almost ready to pupate, it would stop eating and almost manically crawl around its enclosure, living out a biologically programmed need to move away from it's host plant. It did exactly that, so I lovingly cut up some paper towels for it to burrow into when it was ready to become a pupa. 

See how it got darker?!

I couldn't tell if it was dying or truly becoming a pupa, so I darkened its environment by hanging a rag over it and enclosing the bottom with a removable black paper sleeve.

Sure enough, after about a week I could see that it was a fully-formed pupa, so I removed the paper towels. (But had to keep a mouse paper towel in there to keep humidity up!)


I showed this to anyone and everyone who would look. Babysitters. House guests. People in my contacts list in my phone. I'm not sure if my mother truly cared about this thing as much as me, or if she was just humoring me, but she would diligently respond to all my texts asking about her 'grand-pupa.' LOLOLOLOL. Could I love her any more? The answer is no.

So we left it in there for a few weeks. I read that, when it comes out of it's pupa, it needs something to climb up onto to let its wings dry out and harden, so I hung up a dry paper towel. (I also read somewhere that they don't have an awesome rate of survival, so I worried that this was the end of him.)

But one morning I lifted the dish rag, peeked inside and saw a large black mass contrasted against the white paper towel! 

I wish I could have recorded that moment. Michael and I were so amazed, we immediately showed the kids. Bennett could tell from my excitement that this was big, but I don't think he truly understood because he just kept making loud outbursts of words.

"Bennett, do you see the moth?!"
"Look! The caterpillar came out of his cocoon and is a moth!"

June was thrilled. Luckily we had drilled it into her that we'd be letting it go immediately, so she didn't put up a fight on that one. We rushed through the morning routine so we could let it go before heading into school.

We opened up the lid and got another great view at our lovely, large Sphinx Moth. He didn't fly away all day, but when we checked on him the next morning, he was gone. (They're active at night.) 

So there you have it, our first pet. From larva to pupa to moth. He was a cool, educational pet.

And just yesterday I took some pictures, the habitat and the old pupa shell in to June's class to show them what had happened to the caterpillar they petted. So he just keeps giving!


  1. This is basically the best first pet ever. One you get to watch for a little while, but then it naturally goes away and you're so so proud that it grew up and did its thing. Andplusalso, you don't have to deal with it anymore or handle the aftermath when it dies.

    You know, like the fish that just died at our house :)

    1. That's a great way to think of it!

      I'm so sorry to hear about your fish - I hope Ariadne took it okay. :(

  2. I read this blog with anticipation of each next step...and fear and shuddering just like Bennett. I also burst out laughing at the "grand-pupa" comment...I might keep that with me to think about when I need some laugh relief.
    Way to be an awesome mom who would do all of this - my poor children will never get this experience in our home ;)