Tomato plants are a popular option for many gardeners. They’re easy to grow, harvest, and store; of course, their delicious, juicy flavor adds to the appeal! Unfortunately, tomato plants are prone to different diseases and pests. If you’ve spotted hornworm caterpillars on your plants, it’s time to take action since these little beasts can wreak havoc on your yard.
Fortunately, this guide has outlined how to identify this pesky caterpillar, the tools you’ll need to get rid of them, how to do so, and even how you can prevent them!
Tools You’ll Need to Get Rid of Tomato Hornworm Caterpillars
If you’ve identified hornworm caterpillars on your tomato plants, it’s time to take action. Below, you’ll find the essential items for combatting these pests, though some may be optional depending on your chosen treatment method.
- Gardening gloves
- Magnifying glass
- Soapy water
- Hand trowel
- Collection bag or basket for weeds
- Garden hoe
- Predatory insects, such as lady beetles and green lacewings
- Pesticides and/or insecticides
Identifying Tomato Hornworm Caterpillars
Hornworm caterpillars are often found on tomato plants, though potato, eggplant, and pepper plants also host them. The caterpillars begin by feeding on upper foliage and fruit, resulting in noticeable holes. You can also identify them through their droppings: dark green or black pellets on the leaves. They will consume more and more of the plant as they age, causing immense destruction.
Physically, these insects blend in with your plants’ green leaves, so a keen eye is crucial for identifying these pests. That said, the caterpillars can be up to 4 inches long when fully grown, so they should be easier to spot. They also have eight unique v-shaped white stripes, though smaller hornworms are often white to pale yellow. You may also notice a pointed black “horn” on their back end.
Tomato hornworm caterpillars eventually turn into moths, which deposit smooth green eggs onto leaf surfaces. Those caterpillars hatch and begin to feed, reaching maturity in three to four weeks. They will then drop into the soil, where they turn into pupae and eventually complete their transformation into moths. And the cycle begins anew.
How to Get Rid of Tomato Hornworm Caterpillars
Removing by Hand
One of the most effective ways to handle hornworm caterpillars is to remove them by hand. Remember to wear gardening gloves and use a magnifying glass to spot the caterpillars, their droppings, and their eggs. Once you’ve found the pests, pick them up and drop them in a bowl of warm soapy water. This should kill the caterpillars and protect your plants!
If you’ve spotted hornworm caterpillars in your garden, implementing natural enemies is a great way to combat them. You may want to opt for more than one insect as they each target the caterpillars at different life stages.
Lady beetles and green lacewings feed on the egg stage of all different caterpillars, while paper wasps feed on the caterpillars themselves. Both options are ideal if you have an issue with caterpillars in general.
You can also opt for the tiny braconid wasp, which will parasitize the caterpillars. Essentially, the wasps lay eggs on the caterpillar, hatch, and feed on the insect’s body. This cycle will continue as the eggs grow into wasps and look for new hornworm caterpillars to parasitize.
If hand picking or natural enemies don’t do the trick, you can also try using pesticides. Opt for organic, low-risk options such as spinosad or insecticidal soap, which are most effective against tiny caterpillars. Reapply as often as directed until the issue subsides. Remember that pesticides will be most effective in conjunction with the other recommended treatment methods.
Preventing Hornworm Caterpillars
Hornworm caterpillars reproduce quickly and defoliate plants just as quickly, so it’s essential to nip the issue in the bud as quickly as possible. Fortunately, there are several ways to prevent them!
Weeding prevents the caterpillars effectively since there will be fewer places for the moths to lay eggs. You should also till the soil after harvesting your fruits and vegetables to kill any caterpillars that have burrowed to transform into moths.
Of course, implementing natural enemies in your garden is a great way to prevent the caterpillars from feeding on your crops! You can also install an electric insect killer, which should attract and kill the moths. There are also several good companion plants for tomatoes, such as marigolds, that will help keep the hornworms away.
Caterpillars Be Gone!
Tomato hornworm caterpillars are common, but they can be dealt with. Hand removal is a simple and effective treatment, though natural enemies and pesticides may be necessary. With all that in mind, prevention is the best way to protect your plants.
And if you implement the correct measures, you won’t have to worry about handling these pesky caterpillars! Do you have any tips for dealing with tomato hornworm caterpillars? Share in the comments below!