Although we have had butterflies and moths fluttering about our gardens over the last 3/4 months or so, there are still some rather large caterpillars about. Have you ever encountered a Hawk-moth caterpillar?  

  Elephant hawk-moth caterpillar. Photo: Nancy Brown

They're quite spectacular and some are 9/10cm long; the Deaths head hawk-moth can grow as large as 12.5cm! but they are rarely seen as it's actually a migrant moth travelling to the UK from Africa or Europe to feed mostly on the leaves of potato plants. The time to see them is anytime from now, through the rest of Autumn... if you're very lucky.

But Hawk-moths and their caterpillar form are regularly seen in domestic gardens where a wide variety of plants like lady’s bedstraw, foxgloves, primroses, willow-herbs, and fuchsias are a magnet for the caterpillars. Other scented flowering plants provide nectar for the adult moths like sweet rocket, honeysuckle, jasmine, evening primroses, lychnis rose campions and sea lavenders.

The adult moth lays her eggs on the caterpillar's favourite food plant and once hatched, will munch away until it's fully grown in a matter of days or weeks depending on the species and when it's fully grown, will find a place amongst leaves or in the soil to turn into a pupa for the winter. It will remain there until it emerges during a night in spring,  with wings as a moth. In the case of the elephant hawk-moth caterpillar, this takes approximately 27 days. 

We have 9 resident hawk moths (from the family Sphingidae) in the UK, to find out more about the caterpillars and their favourite food plants from the Wildlife Trusts here.

To encourage moths and caterpillars to live in our gardens, we can help by allowing some long grasses and flowering weeds to grow amongst our other plants, or create specific areas for weeds and moth friendly plants. Also, allowing some of the garden to have undisturbed areas of leaves and discarded plant matter can encourage a whole host of invertebrates and garden mammals as well as being a potential wintering place for moth pupae. There are additional tips on gardening for moths from Butterfly Conservation.

For more information and inspiration on wildlife gardening, the Flatford Wildlife Garden, is currently open every day until October from 10.30am – 4.30pm. Entrance to the garden is free and well-behaved dogs on leads are welcome. Car parking is £5 at the Flatford National Trust car park and this gives you access to the stunning countryside walks around Flatford and Dedham Vale in Constable Country.