Two summers ago, I wrote about Hunting Hornworms on Tomato Plants.
Here we are in July again, and here are the hornworms again! Yesterday, in two 80 ft (24.4 m) rows of tomatoes, I found 53 inches (1.35m) of hornworms! There were 24, varying in length from 1” (2.5 cm) to 4” (10 cm). Today I found even more: 42 caterpillars totaling 85” (2.2m)! They are stripping leaves and munching on the green fruit.
In our hornworm photos, you might notice ours are not the same as yours. Ours are tobacco hornworms, not tomato hornworms, but both are bad news and both attack tomato plants. Before Twin Oaks Community started here in 1967, the land was a tobacco farm. Tobacco hornworms have a red (not black) horn, and diagonal white lines, not arrowhead vees.
Hornworms hatch from eggs laid by the night-flying Carolina sphinx moth or Tobacco hawk moth. This year I did catch one of the moths, and kill it, but we still have plenty of caterpillars. The moths hatch from strange coppery pupae with pipes or spouts attached, which overwinter in the soil. Even our most vigilant caterpillar-hunting seems to miss some, which then drop to the ground to pupate. Another way to break the lifecycle is to close the hoophouse at dusk every night (and open it promptly every morning before it gets too hot), but we’ve decided not to go that route.
Hornworms often get parasitized outdoors by a tiny braconid wasp that lays eggs in the backs of the caterpillars. The larvae develop inside the caterpillar and then the pupae develop as white rice-grain-like cocoons sticking out of the back of the hornworm. Usually our friend the parasitic wasp doesn’t come inside the hoophouse and to get parasites into the hoophouse hornworms we have to bring in parasitized hornworms from outdoors. This doesn’t work so well, because the hoophouse tomatoes are a month earlier than the outdoor ones, and the hornworm cycle is well underway in the hoophouse by the time the parasitic wasps are in action outdoors. This year we’ve found several parasitized hornworms indoors in the past few days, and we are very happy.
Meanwhile, we are conducting hunting raids every morning. To find where the hornworms are working, first look at the upper leaves of the tomatoes. If they are stripped bare down to the ribs, that’s a good place to look. Hornworms only like the tender upper leaves. If there are intact newer younger leaves, it might mean there was a hornworm, but it’s been removed already, and the plant is recovering. Another sign of hornworms in the area is chewed fruit. Another sign is “pineapple poop” – miniature brown pineapples or hand grenades. If you see fresh poop, look directly upwards – remember the law of gravity. The size of the poop is, naturally enough, in proportion to the size of the hornworm.
Having determined there is a hornworm in the vicinity, the next task is to find it. You’d think it would be easy – a big striped caterpillar like that. Not so! They are the exact same shade of green as tomato leaves. Hornworms can look remarkably similar to curled tomato leaves. The white stripes mimic the veins on the undersides of the leaves.
When I find some signs, I gaze at the area, looking for discrepancies in the pattern – bare stems with lumps on them. Usually the caterpillar is on the underside of a chewed stem, and often (but not always) they have their heads raised. When you find one, get a firm grip, pull it off the plant (they have strong legs which hold on tight), drop it on the ground and stomp on it. The skins are quite thick.
If I still can’t see the worm, I stand still and sway a bit from side to side, viewing the plant from different perspectives. It helps if the top of the plant is back-lit, but I do always check both sides of the row, no matter where the sun is. Knowing the signs of hornworm grazing can save you time looking everywhere. Focus your attention on where you are most likely to find them, and you will get the most success in the least time.
Bt is an organically-approved pesticide spray that kills small caterpillars, without killing other insects. I don’t expect it to work on big hornworms. Hunting seems to be the way to go!