It might have been a domestic disaster. This is a good news-bad news kind of garden story.  

While preparing my garden beds last week, I came across dozens of pupae waiting out the winter in the comfort of the dirt in my raised beds. A pupa, which is Latin for doll, is the resting stage of a holometabolous insect, or one that undergoes complete metamorphosis. These particular pupae hailed from the sphinghidae, or sphinx family of moths.  

As most of us remember from grade school, the stages of complete metamorphosis include egg, larva, pupa and adult. For the crossword puzzlers and Scrabble players out there, the adult metamorphic stage is also called imago. And in the case of these insects, the larval stage is a caterpillar, the pupa is the transition phase between larva and adult and its form can be encased in a cocoon or chrysalis. The adult is the moth. 

Being a lover of most creatures, I photographed the sphinx moth pupae and left them in the dirt to transform into their adult stage. I had made my bed, I figured, and they could lie in it. The thinking was that I would get the identification as to genus and species later, after some research.    

Sphinx moths are notably large and include many memorable varieties such as the gorgeous white-lined sphinx and pink-spotted hawkmoth. Some of the individuals in this group are very unique and admired.     

The snowberry clearwing and white-lined sphinx moths resemble hummingbirds and add much to the garden landscape, drinking in flower juice while buzzing about. Those were just a few of the ones that I imagined were simmering in the soil waiting for warmer weather to elcose, or emerge as glorious moths. 

However, upon starting my research, a dark cloud came over the garden — and my spirit — when I realized that there were other sphinx moths that bring fear and loathing.  

Two varieties of sphinx moths terrorize and destroy garden produce. These calamitous caterpillars are the tomato and tobacco hornworms, great green globs that devour the leaves of our tomato plants and render them useless: the plants die after an infestation of these caterpillars.     

Potentially very bad news. Did I leave dozens of maniacal munchers to grow and reproduce more insects to eat my future foodstuff?  Maybe.      

Racing through the research I found that the pupae were just about the shape and color of the horrific hornworms. However, my panic subsided when I learned that the hornworm pupae were notably larger than the ones I was looking at, and have a hook or jug handle emerging from the tip that will grow into the moth’s proboscis.      

Identifying pupae is possible and is a very curious pursuit. The pupa of a butterfly resides in a chrysalis, while a moth pupa can be covered by a cocoon. In this case, there was no cocoon, so the pupae were naked and with limited exterior protections excepting their hard, outer surface.  

The movement, or lack of pupal movement, can also be a hint. Some pupae, like hornworms, wiggle when you touch them, while others don’t move or twitch at all. Also, one can count the body segments, note the number and types of hooks on one end, and observe the presence or absence of appendages such as the aforementioned handle.  

The good news is that my specimens lacked the handle and so were not the dreaded hornworms. While I breathed a sigh of relief, I did question my live and let live attitude to these curious creatures. And for now, I will take comfort in knowing what my pupae are not, and grow them out to see what they will be. The riddle of the sphinx will, for now, remain a mystery.

Suzan Bellincampi is Islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.