What are Tomato Hornworms?! Find out what they are and how to get them out of your garden.
Hornworms are fat green caterpillars with black and white striping along their sides. They can get up to 5 inches long. Most varieties are easily recognized by a red spike or “horn” coming off of their tail end. It looks scary, but can’t sting or anything like that.
When hornworms mature into the adult stage, they are actually a very beautiful moth. I do enjoy seeing them fluttering around my butterfly bushes and other blossoms that I plant out there for the pollinators. There are different varieties: sphinx months, hawk moths or hummingbird moths. The hummingbird moths are what I often see. They get their name because at first glance, they actually look like a hummingbird. That is until you get a closer look and realized that it is a completely different part of the animal kingdom.
But this one in particular is the Manduca quinquemaculata, or the Five-Spotted Hawkmoth. It’s not hard to figure out where the name comes from, looking at the adult moth.
Though I do think the moths are very pretty, I do NOT appreciate or welcome their spawn.
The caterpillars are very camouflaged and difficult to see in your garden, but you certainly can’t miss what they do. They will utterly decimate your garden…especially your tomatoes! They can strip an entire mature tomato plant in a day, and they don’t just stop with the leaves. They’ll devour the fruit as well.
If hornworms show up, tomatoes aren’t the only thing at risk. You can also find them on potato plants, peppers and eggplants.
So how do you get rid of these little beasts?
I for one don’t do pesticides in the garden. (I do have some natural bug sprays that come in very handy.)
The best way to get rid of them, is to do a daily walk with a bucket of water. Walk through your whole garden, checking the plants. A couple signs that you have hornworms are plant stalks completely stripped of leaves, a second is black poop blotches on leaves or fruit. If you see either of these, look for the worms. When you find them, pluck them from the plant and drop them in the bucket of water.
If you have chickens, dump the bucket out in your chicken run and watch those green garden invaders go from the devour-ers to the devoured. Chickens see them as a gourmet treat.
Now if you have trouble finding the hornworms in your garden…they are camouflaged after all, there’s a trick you can use.
Get a battery-operated (UV) black light, and walk through the garden after dark. Shine the light across your plants and just watch. Their bodies will glow as the light hits them. There’s no hiding from the black light! Your plants will look purple, but the worms will glow white or a neon green.
If you do it at night, use a bucket that has a lid. That way when you are finished gathering them up, you can close up the bucket and none will escape. Feed them to your chickens the next day.
If you don’t have chickens, or you are squeamish about the idea of giving them the caterpillars, simply put soapy water in the bucket. The caterpillars will die and never bother your garden again.