- 1 Oleander Hawk-moth
- 2 Oleander hawk — a butterfly traveling between continents
- 3 Oleander Plant Caterpillars: Learn About Oleander Caterpillar Damage
- 4 Oleander Caterpillar Life Cycle
- 5 How to Get Rid of Oleander Caterpillars
- 6 Are Oleander Caterpillars Poisonous to Humans?
- 7 Monarch Butterflies New Zealand- Did You Know?
- 8 What Is The Largest Moth In The World?
- 9 3. Atlas Moth
- 10 2. White Witch
- 11 1. Hercules Moth
- 12 About the Author
This immigrant species is not seen every year the UK and is usually seen at a light source. After dusk it can be seen feeding from tubular flowers, such as honeysuckle and tobacco.
Flies between August and October.
Size and Family
- Family: Hawk-moths (Sphingidae)
- Size: Large, 9-13cm wingspan
Particular Caterpillar Food Plants
Periwinkle (Vinca spp.) as well as oleander (Nerium oleander), but on the continent — the larva is very rarely found in Britain.
- Countries –Sicily, Crete, Cyprus, northern Africa
- Widespread in the UK, although rare. Seen as far north as Scotland, although usually in south England, probably the offspring of moths that breed insouthern Europe in the summer.
Usually coastal in the UK. Abroad breeds in very warm. open places, e.g. scrubland/hillsides.
Oleander Hawk-moth — Ervin Szombathelyi
Oleander Hawk-moth — Paul Parsons
Oleander Hawk-moth — Paul Parsons
Oleander Hawk-moth — Paul Parsons
Oleander Hawk-moth — Paul Parsons
Oleander Hawk-moth (underside) — Paul Parsons
Oleander Hawk-moth (underside)
Oleander Hawk-moth (caterpillar) — Tamás Nestor
Oleander Hawk-moth (caterpillar)
Oleander Hawk-moth (caterpillar) — Tamás Nestor
Oleander Hawk-moth (caterpillar)
Oleander Hawk-moth (pupa) — Jürgen Mangelsdorf
Oleander Hawk-moth (pupa)
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Oleander hawk — a butterfly traveling between continents
The oleander caterpillar, Syntomeida epilais Walker, a bright orange caterpillar with tufts of long black hairs, is a common sight on oleanders in Florida and southern Georgia. In southern regions of Florida the oleander caterpillar can cause considerable defoliation. This species is the only caterpillar pest of concern on this ornamental plant, although a related species, the spotted oleander caterpillar, Empyreuma pugione (Linnaeus), may be found occasionally in south Florida and the Keys.
Figure 1. A polka-dot wasp moth, the adult stage of the oleander caterpillar, Syntomeida epilais Walker. Photograph by James Castner, University of Florida.
Distribution (Back to Top)
The oleander caterpillar is a native of the Caribbean region. Its range extends from northern South America, through Central America into Mexico, and from many Caribbean islands into Florida and coastal regions of southeastern states. It is a year round inhabitant of south Florida and the Keys but is usually killed by cold winter temperatures in northern and north-central Florida only to recolonize these areas the following spring. The original host plant is thought to be a now relatively rare beach- or pineland-inhabiting vine, Echites umbellata Jacq. However, the oleander caterpillar is thought to have switched over to feeding on oleander when the Spanish introduced this Mediterranean ornamental plant in the 17th century. The geographic distribution of the oleander caterpillar in America now coincides with that of oleander except that the caterpillar is not found in California.
Description (Back to Top)
Adults: The adult stage of the oleander caterpillar is sometimes called the polka-dot wasp moth. Wasp moth is the common name given to the subfamily of arctiid moths to which this species belongs (the ctenuchines) because of their resemblance to wasps such as the sphecids and pompilids. The moth’s body and wings are a beautiful iridescent blue/green. Small white dots are found on the body, wings, legs and antennae, and the tip of the abdomen is red/orange. Male and female moths are quite similar in appearance, and have a wing span of 45 to 51 mm. These moths are slow-flying and active during daylight hours, which contrasts them with other moth species which are usually nocturnal.
Eggs: The eggs are found in clusters on the underside surfaces of oleander leaves. They are pale cream to light yellow in color, spherical in shape, and measure less than 1 mm in diameter.
Figure 2. Egg cluster of the oleander caterpillar, Syntomeida epilais Walker, laid on bottom surface of oleander leaves. Photograph by James Castner, University of Florida.
Figure 3. Orange and black larva of the oleander caterpillar, Syntomeida epilais Walker. Photograph by Paul Choate, University of Florida.
Pupae: The pupae are smooth and brown in appearance and are aggregated in depressions on tree trunks or where the walls meet the eaves of buildings. The pupal aggregation is covered by a thin cocoon woven from silk and hairs from their larval skins.
Figure 4. Pupal aggregation of the oleander caterpillar, Syntomeida epilais Walker, covered by a thin cocoon of hairs and silk. Photograph by James Castner, University of Florida.
Life Cycle (Back to Top)
Moths of the oleander caterpillar, unlike most moth species, do not use volatile sex pheromones to locate each other for the purpose of reproduction. In this species, female moths perch on oleander foliage and emit an ultrasonic acoustic signal which, although inaudible to us, attracts male moths from great distances. When male and female moths are within a few meters of each other, they begin a courtship duet of acoustic calls which continues until mating occurs two or three hours before dawn.
Once mated, female moths search for plants on which to lay their eggs. They oviposit on the undersides of the leaves in young growing shoots of oleander plants. Egg masses can contain from 12 to 75 eggs. First instars hatch in two to six days, depending on the temperature, and eat the shells of their eggs. The second and third instars (2 to 4 mm in length) usually feed gregariously on the underside of leaves, progressively moving down the plant. The gregarious feeding stage averages about 8.5 days in the summer.
After molting to the fourth instar, larvae begin to consume the entire leaf rather than just the underneath surface and often are solitary. It is the fourth, fifth and sixth instars that can defoliate entire oleander bushes. This solitary feeding stage averages about 19 days. The mature sixth instars leave the oleander plant and search for a pupation site. The larvae aggregate for some unknown reason and form pupal aggregations covered by a very thin silk cocoon.
Damage (Back to Top)
Early infestation by the oleander caterpillar is easy to recognize. The young, gregariously feeding larvae turn the new oleander shoots a light brown color due to their skeletonizing feeding behavior (leaving the major and minor leaf veins untouched while eating the tissue in between). Examination of the underneath surface of these brown leaves or those leaves slightly below the damaged foliage will reveal a group of small larvae. At this stage the insect is very easy to control. If caterpillars are allowed to grow beyond the small, gregarious stage, they can inflict a lot of unsightly defoliation on the oleander unless nature or human intervention stops them. Total defoliation will not kill the plant but, if it occurs repeatedly year after year, the plant may be more susceptible to other pests such as scale insects.
Figure 5. Control of the oleander caterpillar, Syntomeida epilais Walker, is easiest during its gregarious feeding stage. Photograph by James Castner, University of Florida.
Figure 6. Skeletonized oleander terminals are the first sign of infestation by the oleander caterpillar, Syntomeida epilais Walker. Photograph by James Castner, University of Florida.
Management (Back to Top)
Biological control. Birds are often great predators of caterpillar pests in the landscape. However, because of the poisonous diet of the oleander caterpillar, birds and small mammals do not feed on this abundant resource. Several other insect species however are able to feed on the oleander caterpillar. Natural enemies include predatory stink bugs, parasitic tachinid flies and wasps, and the ever voracious red imported fire ant. Stink bugs have been observed sucking the juices out of larvae. Tachinid flies lay their eggs on large larvae and wasps lay their eggs on pupae. The progeny of these parasitic insects then devour the oleander caterpillar. Fire ants often discover the pupal aggregations and eat this immobile life stage. Viral, fungal and bacterial diseases can be quite prevalent in certain years and can cause tremendous levels of mortality. Pathogen-infected larvae are often dark in color, flaccid and easily «liquified». While these pathogen-infected larvae may look «gross», leaving them on the oleander bushes will allow the disease to spread within the oleander caterpillar population.
Figure 7. The spined soldier bug, Podisus maculiventris (Say), sucking the contents of an oleander caterpillar larva, Syntomeida epilais Walker. Photograph by James Castner, University of Florida.
Figure 8. Parasitic wasp, Brachymeria incerta, laying egg in a pupa of the oleander caterpillar, Syntomeida epilais Walker. Photograph by James Castner, University of Florida.
Cultural control. Removal of larvae-infested foliage is the most environmentally friendly method of controlling the oleander caterpillar and is relatively easy on bushes of less than 2 m in height. Simply use a pair of scissors or pruners to snip off the damaged foliage and the group of feeding larvae. Put the infested plant material in a plastic bag and freeze for 24 hours to kill the caterpillars. Because of the poisonous nature of the plant sap, care must be taken to wash the hands immediately after disposing of the pruned plant material. Large larvae can be hand picked and frozen similarly or dropped into a container of soapy water. This method has none of the possible side effects, such as killing beneficial biological control agents or risking human insecticide exposure, that can occur with insecticidal control. It is difficult to remove larvae from very tall bushes, however. There are no oleander cultivars that are resistant to oleander caterpillar but it has been suggested that dwarf cultivars may be less susceptible.
Chemical control. Application of insecticides should be considered as a last resort for this insect which, while producing unsightly damage, does not kill oleander. Bacillus thuringiensis, a microbial insecticide that is sold under various trade names, is a bacterium that kills only lepidopteran larvae. It has no toxicity toward beneficial insects.
Selected References (Back to Top)
- Bratley HE. 1932. The oleander caterpillar, Syntomeida epilais Walker. Florida Entomologist 15: 55-64.
- McAuslane HJ, Bennett FD. 1995. Parasitoids and predators associated with Syntomeida epilais (Lepidoptera: Arctiidae) on oleander. Florida Entomologist 78: 543-546.
- Reinert JA. 1974. Bacillus thuringiensis for control of the oleander caterpillar. Proceedings of the Southern Nursery Association Research Conference 19: 44-45.
- Reinert JA. 1980. Control of the oleander caterpillar on oleander. Proceedings of the Florida State Horticultural Society 93: 168-169.
- Rothschild M, von Euw J, Reichstein T. 1973. Cardiac glycosides (heart poisons) in the polka-dot moth Syntomeida epilais Walk. (Ctenuchidae: Lep.) with some observations on the toxic qualities of Amata (=Syntomis) phegea (L.). Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 183: 227-247.
- Sanderford MV, Conner WE. 1990. Courtship sounds of the polka-dot wasp moth, Syntomeida epilais. Naturwissenschaften 77: 345-347.
Author: Heather McAuslane, University of Florida
Photographs: James Castner, Paul Choate, University of Florida
Web Design: Don Wasik, Jane Medley
Publication Number: EENY-9
Publication Date: April 1997. Latest revision: September 2016. Latest review January 2020.
An Equal Opportunity Institution
Featured Creatures Editor and Coordinator: Jennifer L. Gillett-Kaufman, University of Florida
Oleander Plant Caterpillars: Learn About Oleander Caterpillar Damage
A native of the Caribbean region, oleander plant caterpillars are an enemy of oleanders in the coastal areas of Florida and other southeastern states. Oleander caterpillar damage is easy to recognize, as these oleander pests eat the tender leaf tissue, leaving the veins intact. While oleander caterpillar damage rarely kills the host plant, it defoliates the oleander and gives the leaves a skeleton-like appearance if not controlled. The damage is largely aesthetic. Read on to learn how to get rid of oleander caterpillars.
Oleander Caterpillar Life Cycle
In the adult stage, oleander plant caterpillars are impossible to miss, with iridescent, bluish-green body and wings with bright reddish-orange at the tip of the abdomen. The wings, body, antennae and legs are marked with small, white dots. The adult oleander wasp moth is also known as the polka-dot wasp because of its marking and wasp-like shape.
The female oleander caterpillar moth lives only about five days, which is plenty of time to lay clusters of creamy white or yellow eggs on the undersides of tender leaves. As soon as the eggs hatch, the bright orange and black caterpillars begin feeding on the oleander leaves.
Once full grown, the caterpillars wrap themselves in silky cocoons. The pupae is often seen nestled into tree bark or under the eaves of buildings. The entire oleander caterpillar life cycle spans a couple of months; one year is ample time for three generations of oleander plant caterpillars.
How to Get Rid of Oleander Caterpillars
Oleander caterpillar control should begin as soon as you see the caterpillars on the leaves. Pick the caterpillars off by hand and drop them in a bucket of soapy water. If the infestation is severe, clip heavily infested leaves and drop them into a plastic garbage bag. Dispose of the infested plant matter carefully to prevent spread of the insects.
If all else fails, spray the oleander bush with Bt spray (Bacillus thuringiensis), a natural bacteria that poses no risk to beneficial insects.
Chemicals should always be a last resort, as pesticides kill beneficial insects along with the oleander plant caterpillars, creating even larger infestations with no natural enemies to keep the pests in check.
Are Oleander Caterpillars Poisonous to Humans?
Touching oleander caterpillars can result in an itchy, painful skin rash, and touching the eyes after contact with the caterpillar can cause inflammation and sensitivity.
Wear gloves when working with an infested oleander plant. Wash your hands immediately if your skin comes in contact with the caterpillars.
Note: Keep in mind that all parts of oleander plants are also highly toxic.
Monarch Butterflies New Zealand- Did You Know?
1. Many butterfly enthusiasts are surprised to discover that monarchs exist across several continents, including the 93% submerged former continent of Zealandia.
New Zealand is not a continent, but a small remaining piece of history.
2. The monarchs’ main food source in New Zealand comes from the Gomphocarpus genus. This includes Giant swan plant and swan plant, milkweed varieties that are also growing in popularity with gardeners (and monarchs) across the U.S.
3. No matter how far you travel, you can never escape the dreaded Oleander aphids. The infamous orange milkweed pests torture gardeners worldwide:
4. Where do New Zealand monarch butterflies go for the winter?
New Zealand monarchs migrate to local overwintering grounds in more temperate NZ locations including Christchurch and Tauranga Bay. The temperature in these regions doesn’t typically go below 10° C or 50° F.
In the southern hemisphere, summer arrives in late December, and monarch season is in full swing.
5. The Monarch Butterfly New Zealand Trust was initially formed to protect the Tauranga Bay overwintering site, but has now expanded to support the monarch butterfly population across New Zealand.
Here is more about the trust and what you can do to help support New Zealand monarchs:
What Is The Largest Moth In The World?
The Atlas moth is generally considered the world’s largest moth alongside the white witch and Hercules moth.
The Atlas moth is the largest species of moth.
Moths are insects that are closely related to butterflies. There are approximately 160,000 species of moths, some of which are yet to be described. Although moths closely resemble butterflies, there are differences between moths and butterflies. The distinguishing feature is the antennae. A moth has a feathery antenna while a butterfly has a thin antenna with a small ball at the end of it. Moths vary in sizes and shapes with some having a large surface area of over 60 square inches. The size of a moth can be measured using its wingspan which is the distance between the tip of one wing and the tip of the other wing. It can also be measured using the wing surface area also known as the wing platform area. The Atlas moth is generally considered the world’s largest moth alongside the white witch and Hercules moth.
3. Atlas Moth
The Atlas moth is a saturniid moth (a family of Lepidoptera consisting of over 2,300 species) endemic to Asian forests. It lives in the Malay Archipelago and draws a lot of attention from tourists because of its size. In fact, in Taiwan, the people use Atlas cocoons as purses. It is not entirely clear where the name Atlas comes from but it could be in reference to its large size referred to in Greek Mythology or because of the wing pattern. Atlas moths are the considered the largest moth species in the world due to its combined wingspan and surface area. The females are bigger and heavier than the male with the wingspan ranging from 10 to 12 inches and a surface area of approximately 62 square inches. Its wingspan and surface area are only surpassed by that of the white witch and Hercules moths. The wings are reddish-brown with white, black, pink, and purple patterns on the upper part while the undersides are pale.
2. White Witch
The white witch moth is also known by several names including ghost moth, great owlet moth, and birdwing moth. It occurs mainly in Southern Mexico and throughout South America. The moth also appears as a stray in areas such as Texas in the US. Its main habitats include the valley of San Cristobal de Las Casas and areas surrounded by pine forest. Although the white witch is generally widespread, it is considered endangered in Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sol. The white witch has the largest wingspan of all Lepidoptera which is estimated to be 10.6 to 11.4 inches. In Brazil, one was reported to have a wingspan on 12 inches. The wing underside is darker than the upper parts. The legs have long spurs.
1. Hercules Moth
Hercules moths are endemic to the island of New Guinea and the northern parts of Australia. It is the largest exotic species of moth by wingspan in Australia, commonly found in the tropical Queensland. The adult moth is short-lived and does not feed. However, the larva feeds on celery wood and black cherry, as well as other plants while in captivity. Hercules moths have the largest wing surface area of all the moth species. The female has a wingspan of up to 11 inches. In males, the rear corners of the hindwings are stretched into long tails. Their caterpillar is always pale-blue and can grow to a length of 5 inches. The spectacular caterpillar has false eyes at the rear end to confuse any potential attacker.
About the Author
John Misachi is a seasoned writer with 5+ years of experience. His favorite topics include finance, history, geography, agriculture, legal, and sports.