The Tersa sphinx larva can wipe out your pentas in no time. (Photo provided by UF Extension Service)

I could not believe my eyes. My perky purple pentas were stripped of foliage in one night. How could that happen?

After questions and pictures, we identified the culprits as Tersa sphinx larva. They look a bit like little snakes. They can be green or brown in color and have one large eyespot with 6 smaller ones trailing down the body and a small horn on the rear end. These caterpillars love to dine on Pentas lanceolata.

If you prefer your Pentas to watching the life cycle of these cats, slip on your garden gloves and manually remove the caterpillars. Drop them into a bucket of soapy water. (When you see them floating you will know they are dead.)

You must be at least one step ahead of these caterpillars, because like many of us, these creatures find Florida to be just right. Check all the plants around the first plant where you first discovered the crawly caterpillars, to make sure you have gotten them all. Now look for the next generation. Just because you got rid of the giants it does not mean you have removed the problem. Or you can do nothing, observe and watch the whole life cycle take place in your garden. They are a great life-cycle lesson for kids, and make great dining for birds.

Where did they come from? They fly as a brood. Think back, do you remember seeing some unusually large moths flying up from the grass or foliage? That is Mom, who was pupating underground. She lays the eggs on the penta leaves and the hatchlings devour the leaves. They become caterpillars as part of their lifecycle, becoming the Tersa sphinx larva.

If you do not want the caterpillars to turn into pupa and then adult moths you must get rid of the caterpillars or the pupa (resting stage). They have some natural predators — vertebrates such as birds, skunks and rodents consume larvae and pupae readily. If none of these predators are hanging around, the best thing to do is reach for the biological solution, Bacillus thuringiensis. Spraying the young caterpillars as they are eating will do the job. Success in defeating these penta lovers also means spraying the foliage when the larvae first appear. For more information on Tersa sphinx larva go to:

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