Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Catalpa (catawba) "worms"

Larval form of the Ceratomia catalpae moth

Catalpa (catawba) trees are essential to the life cycle of the large, brown, night-flying moth Ceratomia catalpae. The United States has two species of catalpas -- southern catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides) and northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa). The Ceratomia catalpae (catalpa sphinx moth) can use either tree as a host, and catalpa moths may be found wherever catalpa trees grow.

The female moths lay piles of tiny, translucent, pearl-like eggs on the undersides of catalpa leaves or on the branches, often several hundred or even a thousand at a time. When the eggs hatch, tiny larvae emerge.

As the larvae feed on the catalpa leaves, they grow through several stages of development, becoming darker in color as they grow older. At their largest, they can measure up to three inches long. The catalpa worms always have a "horn" -- a spike at the end of their abdomen -- like the tobacco and tomato hornworms.

Catalpa worms spend their time eating catalpa leaves, and when a catalpa tree has hundreds of larvae consuming its foliage, it often develops areas of defoliation that give the tree a ragged appearance. Fortunately, the tree usually tolerates the abuse without long-lasting ill-effect.

The catalpa larvae burrow into the soil about three inches to pupate. The life cycle is complete when the large adult sphinx moths emerge, mate, and lay more eggs. Two or three lifecycles in a growing season are common.

Catalpa worms are said to be excellent fish bait for catching bluegill and catfish. One method is to cut the worm in half and turn it inside out (using a match) so the flavor is released to attract the fish. They can also be cut into pieces and threaded on a hook like earthworms. The skin of the worm is tough, so it stays on the hook and the worms are said to be lively for long periods of time. (Bait durability is much appreciated by fishermen.)

Worms can be shaken out of a catalpa tree onto a tarp spread on the ground. Fishermen sometimes preserve the worms for future fishing expeditions by packing them in cornmeal or sawdust inside glass jars or shoe boxes and freezing them. When they are thawed, the worms are still fresh and alive -- or if not, catfish like dead catawba worms, too.

The catalpa tree in the image below grows in the town of Van Buren, Missouri, about 150 yards above the Current River. It is the largest catalpa tree I've ever seen. Catalpa trees can grow 70 or 80 feet tall, and this tree is all of that or more. It would be difficult to shake it for worms.

All this writing about fish bait makes me feel like going fishing! I even know where there's a catalpa tree in our neighborhood.

Image credits: Ceratomia catalpae adult photo (found on Wikipedia) taken by Shawn Hanrahan at the Texas A&M University Insect Collection in College Station, Texas. Catalpa worm photo (found on Wikipedia) taken by contributor Taxidermistjake.

10 comments -- please add yours:


Genevieve, Always interested in the subject of moths. Your post gives lots of god information along with a few good photos that illustrate the Catalpa moth. Enjoyed!

Genevieve said...

I have never used catalpa worms for fish bait, but I do prefer live bait rather than flies, lures, etc. I'm intrigued that the catalpa worms are supposed to be such good bluegill bait. Bluegill are fun to catch and really good to eat.

Anonymous said...

Genevieve, Glad you had something to say on the matter. It's tough to find info on the worms. I just want to know when I can expect to be done with their feeding on my tree's foliage? End of June? End of July? Any ideas?

Anonymous said...

how do you know if an Catawba worm is a female or male?

chris marlo said...

Please contact me at

Kandy Kilgore said...

Can someone tell me how I can get the Catalan worms on my trees?? I have been informed that I must catch some of the worms from one tree to place on my trees to get the infestation I'm seek. I was raised knowing that these fat little caterpillars ARE excellent fish bait so I want to be able to harvest these worms for just that...FISHING!! I have an earth worm bed and am researching how to raise brown crickets, what better way to round off the spectrum of live bait than to be able to raise and fish with my own bait? Thanks in advance for any help you can offer.
William Nickle

Harold said...

When is the best time of yr. to plant these trees? and how do you start your first crop of worms. I use them on muscle bars in the bends of the east and west pearl river. I live in south east ms.

jenaveeee said...

This is August 13th 2016. Our Catalpa Tree is smothered in Catalpa worms, nearly bear of leaves. They have been on the tree for the past 4 weeks, and i assume there time is nearing end quickly. There were no worms the past two years, i thought that odd, but they came back with a vengeance this summer. So i can testify to how they have been working here in Central kentucky.

SGT B said...

I bought a Catalpa Tree from the Arbor Foundation about 8 years ago and it's a little over 20+ feet tall,and this was my best year for Catalpa Worms. I get about 2-3 cycles of worms each year. I never put any worms on the tree to get started,just planted the tree and they came on their own. The tree was 1 1/2'tall when I planted it. Just don't put any chemicals on the tree or on the groun near the tree andyou should be fine.If you still do not get any worms to get on your tree,if you can find some or order some live, then you can transfer them to the tree and you should be good to go. Good luck and good fishing/catching.

Bryan Wooten said...

I also would like to know

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Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

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Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

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