What Do I Do If a Caterpillar Is Eating My Tomato Plants?

Written by mara shannon
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What Do I Do If a Caterpillar Is Eating My Tomato Plants?
Hummingbird moth caterpillars are a common predator of tomato plants. (Image by Flickr.com, courtesy of Lo)

The tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata) is a common predator of tomato plants in the northern United States. In home gardens, the best remedy is to remove the caterpillars by hand and rely on natural predators to get rid of the caterpillars.

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Biology

Hornworms are the caterpillars of the hummingbird moth (also called the sphinx or hawk moth). Adult moths lay their eggs, which hatch in about a week, on the leaves of tomato plants during the late spring. The larvae drop off and bury themselves in the soil, where they form pupae.

Appearance

Hornworms mature in 3-4 weeks, growing to lengths of 3 1/2 to 4 inches. They are green with white, V-shaped marks and a black, horn-like projection on their back ends.

Natural Treatments

The best way to get rid of caterpillars on tomatoes, especially for small, home gardens, is to hand pick them off of the plants. The smaller hornworm larvae may be difficult to see, but the mature larvae---which deal the most damage---can be spotted and removed with a careful search.

Natural Predators

Parasitic wasps are the natural predators of caterpillars, and will help prevent hornworms from spreading. Wasps lay their eggs on the live hornworms; when the eggs hatch, the larvae kill the hornworm and look for new caterpillars to attack.

Prevention

Roto-tilling the soil after harvesting your tomatoes will help prevent future caterpillar infestations. Tilling kills up to 90 per cent of the larvae and pupae in the soil.

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