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Catawba Worms Emerge

The weather continues to warm and school is within days of the summer recess.  The list of anticipated and planned summer activities floats in daydreams of every student as the academic countdown comes to a climax.

High on the list of outdoor pursuits is fishing.  Wakulla County and the surrounding area are blessed with an abundance of ideal freshwater fishing sites which require nothing more than a cane pole and the right bait.

Wakulla County has long been the home of many worm grunters of international acclaim.  This fact is not in dispute, but the choice of the correct bait has been contentiously debated since the dawn of mankind.

Will it be earthworms, or crickets, or bacon which will catch a fish fit for bragging and exaggerated tales? Arguably, the ultimate freshwater bait native to Wakulla County is the large and juicy Catawba Worm.

The Catawba Worm, or Catalpa Worm as it is sometimes known, is actually a caterpillar of the Catalpa Sphinx moth.  The moth is brown with a circular band of dark brown or black surrounding its thorax. Its two-inch wide forewings have a white dot within a small dark mark towards the wing’s center.

Ceratomia catalpae was given its common name based on the Catalapa farm near Troy, Ohio. As a footnote in aviation and agricultural history, an infestation of Catawba Worms became the first target of a crop dusting airplane on August 3, 1921.

As part of an interagency technology development program, U.S. Agriculture Department and the U.S. Army Signal Corps sprayed lead arsenate on the caterpillars.  The experiment was declared a success and within a few years commercial crop dusters were in business nationwide.

Cooperative government agency efforts notwithstanding, Catawba Worms still flourish.  They spend their days as a larva munching on Catawba, or Catalpa, tree leaves.

These larvae are a very pale color when first hatched, but become larger and darker as their life cycle progresses. The Catawba Worm caterpillars complete their larval stage in a showy two inch long lemon yellow, white and black form complete with spots and stripes.

It takes about four weeks from the point their eggs are laid to the emergence of a moth.  Eggs are deposited in groups of 100 to 1000 on the leaves underside, with smaller bunches deposited on branches on the Catawba tree.

Eggs incubate and hatch after five to seven days, but the process may be accelerated to two weeks if multiple generations are laid together.

Like the Catawba Worm, the Catawba tree is native to Wakulla County and much of the lower southeastern United States.  Initially, the tree was the basis for folk remedies to a variety of ailments.

The tree’s linage is traced through Europe and Asia where similar species are found today.   Fossil records indicate the tree existed in the Miocene epoch about 23 million years ago.

The tree’s primary use is in contemporary landscapes is as a flowering ornamental, and as a bait collection point for effete and dedicated fishermen.

To learn more about Catawba worm and trees in Wakulla County contact the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Office at 850-926-3931 or http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco/.

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