Last month while searching stands of Hibiscus lasiocarpus (hairy rose mallow) in western Kentucky, I encountered this rather large caterpillar feeding on the foliage. I presumed that something as large and striking in appearance as this should be a cinch to identify by scanning through photos on BugGuide, and not surprisingly I found photographs (here, here and here) of two very similar looking caterpillars from Oklahoma posted by Charles Schurch Lewallen. None of the photos, however, had an identification associated with them other than subfamily Acontiinae (family Noctuidae). The contributor mentioned in one of the photos that he had found nothing similar in the Wagner (2005) “bible” (a book that I do not yet own but hope to soon). Armed with this scant information (but definitive knowledge of its host plant), I searched Noctuidae of North America and settled on Tarache delecta as a good possibility. According to that site, T. delecta is the only member of the Acontiinae that feeds on plants in the genus Hibiscus. The site references Crumb (1956) for a larval description, but more useful was a plate of black & white photos that I found in Weiss (1919) and that seemed to be a good match for the species I had photographed. Weiss (1919) refers to the larva as the “mallow caterpillar” and notes that full grown larvae are 34–36 mm in length and dark purple with black spots edged with orange—consistent with the caterpillar shown here.
Apparently this species has been considered a pest of ornamental mallows. Weiss (1919) notes that the larvae feed on the upper and lower leaf surfaces usually near the margins, making large holes in the leaves and sometime devouring parts of the bracts around the buds. I will also note that, in recommending control of the caterpillars, he states that “there does not seem to be any reason why spraying with arsenate of lead should not be successful.” My, how times have changed!
Crumb, S. E. 1956. The larvae of the Phalaenidae. U. S. Department of Agriculture, Technical Bulletin 1135, 356 pp. + 10 plates [Google Books].
Wagner, D. L. 2005. Caterpillars of Eastern North America: A Guide to Identification and Natural History. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 512 pp. [Amazon].
Weiss, H. B. 1919. The more important insect enemies of the rose-mallow in New Jersey. New Jersey Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Statistics and Inspection Circular 25, 9 pp. + 4 plates [Google Books].
© Ted C. MacRae 2014