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Tomato Hornworm Caterpillar Identification and Control

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Tomato Hornworm Caterpillars: Identification and Control

If you have tomatoes in your garden, then chances are good at some point that you will encounter tomato hornworms, a serious pest of tomatoes and other plants. This guide will help you identify the caterpillars eating your tomatoes, and offer you some options for controlling them.

This guide will answer the following questions:

  • What do tomato hornworms look like?
  • What does tomato hornworm damage look like?
  • What's the most effective way to find hornworms?
  • What's the best way to to control tomato hornworms?
  • What to tomato hornworms grow into?

Scroll down for quick and easy answers to these questions!

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What Do Tomato Hornworms Look Like?

It's hard to mistake tomato hornworms for any other insect. Young caterpillars look essentially the same as full-grown ones: leaf-green with pale white diagonal stripes, and a curved, reddish horn on the hind end. They are phenomenally well-camougflaged on tomato plants: the color and diagonal stripes perfectly mirror the color and veins of the leaves where the caterpillars live. It's very possible that when you're working among your tomato vines to suddenly realize that there is a very large caterpillar inches from your face. Even up close, these big larvae are amazingly hard to see. And if you can find one, chances are very good that there are several more very close by.

Another way to find hornworms on your tomatoes is to look at the ground underneath the plant. Hornworm poops are very big, and they produce a lot of them, so if you have cateprillars you will easily see their droppings on the ground underneath the infested plant.

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What Does Tomato Hornworm Damage Look Like?

Since tomato hornworms are so big, the damage they inflict is usually very obvious. The caterpillars eat both leaves and fruit, and they seem to prefer young, green tomatoes over red ripe ones (although as you can see from the photo, they aren't all that picky). The caterpillars tend to eat the entire leaf, rather than leave half-eaten ones, so you might not immediately realize how many leaves are missing. If there are more than one hornworms on your tomato plant, however, the damage will be obvious: entire vines without leaves, badly chewed young fruit, and your tomato crop clearly in serious trouble.

Tomato Hornworm: Manduca quinquemaculata

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A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding the Caterpillars on Your Plants

1. Take a close look at your tomato plants. Caterpillars almost always leave evidence: If there are caterpillars eating your tomato plants, you will see damage. Hornworms tend to eat the entire leaf, so look for tendrils on which all of the leaves have been removed -- they'll look like they have been clipped off.

2. Look for fresh "gouges" taken out of the edges of some of the leaves. If the eaten edges are brown, the caterpillar has likely moved on a few days ago and could be anywhere on the plant. If the edges are green and fresh, the culprit is probably nearby.

3. Examine the fruit for damage. Hornworms rarely eat the entire fruit, and they tend to prefer green tomatoes. If you see "bites" taken out of your tomatoes, you may well have a hornworm infestation.

4. Look on the ground for caterpillar droppings -- this can be a good way to tell that there are caterpillars presence, even when they're too well-camouflaged to find.

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Caterpillar Droppings Can Give Away Their Location

If you look under your tomato plants, you may see the droppings from the caterpillars up above. This means that you have a infestation, even if you can't yet see the caterpillars themselves. Caterpillar poop looks like little hand grenades. Some species fling their poop a few feet from the plant to throw predators off their trail, but tomato hornworms typically just let them drop. It's a good trick for finding them, because otherwise they blend in so well with the leaves you may never even see them.

What's the Best Way to to Control Tomato Hornworms?

In my experience, the most effective way to control hornworms is a naturally occurring pesticide called "diatomaceous earth." The is simply dirt scooped from old stream beds where microscopic animals called diatoms once lived. When these small creatures die, they leave behind their silicon-based skeletons, or shells. These shells are sharp, being basically tiny shards of glass. When you spread this dusty old earth over plants, caterpillars crawl over the dirt and the sharp shells make cuts in the caterpillars skin. The damage inflicted by the sharp shells of the diatoms add up, and the caterpillar is killed.

Diatomaceous earth is inexpensive, effective, and completely organic. Rain (or a thorough washing by hose) rinses the diatom shells off the plant and into the ground, where they are neutralized. There are several good manufacturers of this organic pesticide, but the one I recommend is Harris Diatomaceous Earth, which comes with its own power duster.

Harris Food-Grade Diatomaceous Earth

Why "Food Grade"?

The designation of "food grade" in diatomaceous earth simply means that it's refined enough to be considered a food additive. I have never added it to anything I eat, but theoretically you could without ill effect!

One Way to Get Rid of Tomato Caterpillars -- Pick Them Off By Hand

This method is clean and natural, but time-consuming: Pick them off and smoosh them into the ground or your compost pile, where the scavengers and microorganisms that depend on dead animals can get their meal. Chemical insecticides are notoriously inadequate when dealing with tomato horn worms, and this method is both time-honored and, for some people, satisfying. My dad used to offer us kids a nickel for every hornworm we could find and kill. We could make several dollars some weeks -- maybe you could enlist the locals.

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Poison Is NOT a Good Option for Caterpillars on Tomato Plants!

With excellent non-toxic options like diatomaceous earth and good old-fashioned hand-picking, it's truly unnecessary to resort to toxic, inorganic pesticides for dealing with a tomato hornworm infestation.

Natural Tomato Hornworm Caterpillar Control: Parasitic Wasps

The chief predator on tomato hornworms is a tiny wasp. This parasite -- actually a parasitoid, since true parasites rarely kill their host -- lands on the back of the caterpillar and glues on a batch of tiny eggs. These soon hatch out, and the baby wasp larvae, which are basically caterpillars themselves, burrow into the skin of the tomato hornworm. Once inside they begin to eat the fatty tissues and other non-essential parts of the caterpillar. The wasp larvae molt and grow larger, and after a couple of weeks they're full grown. The caterpillar, surprisingly, looks and acts normal while all this is happeneing, eating and growing more or less as usual. But when the larvae burrow back out and spin cocoons on the hornworm's back, it's all over. The caterpillar invariably dies; the little wasps hatch out and fly away to look for more hornworms.

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Tomato Hornworms Showing Cocoons of Wasp Parasites

Once the tiny wasp larvae chew their way out of the host caterpillar, they spin little cocoons. After a week or so, they hatch out and the little wasps fly away to attack other caterpillars.

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Another Option: Soapy Water

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Soapy Water is Non-Toxic and Surprisingly Effective

My mom swore by this method, though most sources recommend it for aphid infestations, not horn worms. Still, you have little to lose by trying this method, and you may kill off a few aphids in the bargain.

How to: simply fill up a spray bottle with warm water and about a teaspoon of plain dish detergent. Spray liberally on and around your tomato plants. The dilute mixture won't hurt your plants, but it may drive away the caterpillars.

Time-Lapse of a Tomato Hornworm Egg Developing and Hatching

What Do Tomato Hornworms Turn Into?

If your hornworms are not killed by control methods, or escape being parasitized by the tiny wasps that attack them, they will burrow under the ground, pupate, and eventually hatch out as a large moth that belongs to a large group of moths, family Sphingidae. The group is distributed throughout the world, and some species are stunningly beautiful. The tomato hornworm moth is not beautiful, but it is impressive -- about the size of a small mouse, with strong brown and gray wings. It flies at dusk and into the night, visiting flowers. When feeding, hawkmoths hover in front of the flower and extend their long thin tongue -- called a "proboscis" -- into the depth of the flower, where it sucks out the nectar. It's truly an amazing animal, and you can see one if you decide to raise of your hornworms to the adult.

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What Do You Think?

You can choose to kill as many as you can get your hands on, or you can let nature take its course. After all, some farmers think of their crop as divided by thirds: one third for animals, one third for insects, one third for the table.

What Do You Say?

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Chago on May 27, 2020:

They make great treats for our chickens

Ellen Gregory from Connecticut, USA on August 21, 2018:

I haven't found any yet, but this is good info

GreenMind Guides (author) from USA on July 12, 2018:

Hi Amber -- Did you kill a moth? Because caterpillars don't lay eggs. They're they immature form of the moth that lays the eggs.

Amber V on August 05, 2016:

I found one on what was my husband's jalepeno plant. It had eaten all the leaves and peppers seemingly overnight. Then, today, my daughter and I were checking on one of our barrels we have set up for bell peppers and my daughter spotted one near the top. I haven't found one on any other plants yet but I think we killed the mother that laid the eggs a few days ago!

kelly c on August 04, 2016:

well I just found my first tomato caterpillar in my giant tomato patch I actually found tree big boys and a baby guess ill be caterpillar huntin this weekend I was wondering why my tomato plants were looking alittle depressed there being eatin alive

anee on August 03, 2016:

I just don,t see that there so bad I like them and there are not ugly

diane L. on August 01, 2016:

Once, many years ago, I had tobacco worms on my tomatoes Picked 'em of. Ugh. Just this morning, just THIS morning, I see only on two well apart plants, the top branches denuded. Maybe, my tomatoes have a chance since it looks like they just started. Pray. Thank you for insightfull information. D.

justramblin on May 01, 2013:

I've found these on my tomato plants, too and the only way I discovered them was from the poop. Interesting to learn why it was so far from the little critter. They sure do eat and eat and eat. Good advice here. I'll try that soap method. The hawk moth is gorgeous and fun to watch at night.

Mary from Chicago area on April 10, 2013:

I hate those hornworms!!! They eat my husband's yummy homegrown tomatoes, which means less for me, which means grrrrr! Thanks for the info on these little pests.

anonymous on April 10, 2013:

Very interesting about these caterpillars. Don't want the plants getting eaten.

CherylsArt on August 25, 2012:

Thank you for the timely info. I like how you presented it. By the time I found the hornworm, the tiny wasp eggs were on it. I cut that part of the branch off and moved it away from the plant. I'll let nature do the rest. Thanks.

cathywoodosborn on March 29, 2012:

I don't always kill them, but feed them to my chickens. Loved the video!

Laraine Sims from Lake Country, B.C. on February 22, 2012:

As you say, they are very hard to find! One thing I do is cut off the damaged part of the plant as I find them and then watch every day for more damage. I soon find the culprit. I drown them and then let the birds have them. Every time I kill one, I feel bad but ... they can do a lot of damage in a hurry. Angel blessings.

anonymous on January 23, 2012:

I have to say this -- we grow tomatoes every year in our garden back home (we're in Brazil right now, though), and there was only one year where the tomato horn worms were so bad they were just decimating our harvest. And some of them had gotten really ridiculously huge, so big that a few of them, when I squashed them (really gross) actually made some kind of squealing noise. I thought I was going to puke. Luckily, they've never been that bad since then. Great lens!

JanezKranjski on January 19, 2012:

Shame they are so harmful, because I find them quite funny looking.

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on January 18, 2012:

I grew up in the country and food for the family comes first, so tomato hornworms weren't allowed to hang around. We did value nature and insects but had to save those tomatoes for canning and eating.

Lee Hansen from Vermont on January 14, 2012:

Tomato hornworms are definitely ugly and they destroy the plants so quickly. Love picking the off and letting them swim in a bucket of sudsy water.

Ellen Gregory from Connecticut, USA on January 14, 2012:

Interesting. I had an Aunt who when walking in the rows of tomato plants, would say "I smell a tomato worm" and sure enough there would be one. She insisted they smell.