Catalpa Worms

I’d been waiting for them to appear since the first leaves of the catalpa tree began to sprout earlier in the season. I finally noticed their handiwork on the 18th of June. The large, long-stalked, heart-shaped leaves of the tree were becoming mere skeletons (top photo, 6/18).

When I discovered the caterpillars they were about 1/2” long and feeding gregariously with their siblings. They had the potential of reaching 3” in length. They were the larvae of the catalpa sphinx moth (Ceratomia catalpae).

Becoming darker as they molt (6/20).
Second day after discovery (6/20).

Most sphinx moths feed alone (picture a tobacco or tomato hornworm, both sphinx moths). Catalpa worms, as they’re usually referred to, feed in clusters during their first two or three instars. That’s perhaps due to the adults laying of tiny, pearly eggs in clusters, sometimes a couple of hundred per cluster. In their final larval stages the caterpillars spread out and feed, more or less, singly.

Note “horn” at rear of caterpillar (6/20).

Catalpa worms are a favorite bait of southern fishermen. You can collect them yourself. You can buy them online. You can buy lures or flies which mimic the caterpillar. The bait, live or artificial, is good for anything from catfish to bluegills to largemouth bass.

Caterpillars tend to coil up when disturbed (6/25). Seven days after first discovery.
The larvae eat on the bottom side of leaves (6/25).

Though fish will gobble up the caterpillars, birds seem to find them distasteful. The catalpa leaves are supposedly toxic. In this case, you are what you eat.

Day eight (6/26).

The caterpillars took 9 days to completely devour all of the leaves on the catalpa tree in question, which is located on the Dinosaur Trail here at the museum. They even started to eat the veins of the leaves. Some of the caterpillars looked to be in their final stage, or instar, and ready to pupate, though a bit early. However, many of the larvae were not prepared for pupation.

Crowding in for last morsel of leaf (6/26).

The caterpillars all crawled down from the tree and along the ground looking for more trees to climb and leaves to eat. I found them on palm fronds, horsetail (Equisetum), and other nearby vegetation. The problem? Catalpa sphinx moths only eat catalpa. They had literally eaten themselves out of leaf and tree.

In search for more food (6/27).
Catalpa moth caterpillars do not eat palm leaves (6/27).

Some of the caterpillars starved, some were stepped upon as they attempted to cross the path, and others are hopefully now under the soil pupating.

The leaves were eaten down to the veins (6/27).

All that’s left is one catalpa tree devoid of leaves.

4 responses to Catalpa Worms

  1. J. R. Ashley says:

    I remember my Dad gathering and placing them in Tupperware containers in the 60’s. Wish I could remember how much salt he added with water before freezing them for bait to catch catfish in Red River near Belcher on Gene Stahl’s property. Some of the most fun I had with my brothers and Dad was camping and fishing on Red River, before we had cell phones.

  2. Hilton says:

    Any chance you could share with me where I might purchase some worms for my tree? 2294003486

    Thanks, Hilton.

    • gregdodge says:

      A quick search on the internet should yield several venders selling worms (caterpillars) for bait. However, if you want them for your catalpa tree, you’ll probably have to wait until a catalpa sphinx moth lays eggs on your tree. If you seriously want to raise the caterpillars, I saw at least one offer by a large internet vender selling a book on raising catalpa worms “How to Raise and Preserve Catalpa Worms.”

  3. gregdodge says:

    The catalpa worm or catawba worm, Ceratomia catalpae, is the larva of a moth. While I did read one post that says, yes, bearded dragons can eat catalpa worms <> I personally do not have any experience with feeding bearded dragons or with their suggested diets. With that said, I can’t answer your question with any certainty.
    However, if you’re going fishing, I can vouch for using the caterpillars as bait!


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