The Tomato hornworm and/or Tobacco hornworm are very similar in appearance. Tobacco hornworms have diagonal white stripes and a red “horn.” Tomato hornworms have eight V-shaped marks on each side and the “horn” is straighter and blue-black in color. These hornworm caterpillars are pretty small at first and hard to see because of their pale green color, but they become huge – 3 1/2 to 4 inches (7-10cm) in 3-4 weeks. You can’t miss them then!
Tobacco Hornworm-(left) Colorado State University, Tomato Hornworm-(right) Paul M. Choate – University of Florida
Tomato/Tobacco hornworms are the larval stage of a huge moth called five-spotted hawkmoth, sphinx moth, also known as hummingbird moths. Approximate size of the moth is around the size of a hummingbird so you can’t miss them. The hawkmoth is gray-brown with yellow spots on the sides of their body. Hornworm eggs are green and are laid on the underside of leaves.
Five-spotted hawkmoth (left)-Floridagardening.com, Hornworm Pupa (cocoon), Hornworm Egg (right)-Colorado State University
The five-spotted hawkmoths lay their eggs as soon as they mate after hatching. They appear in late June to August. Full grown larva (3-4 weeks feeding) wander around the garden digging themselves in where they form a pupa (brown and about 3cm long) that overwinters and hatches in the spring.
Tomato Hornworms feed on leaves and stems of tomato plants. Ocassionally they will also eat the fruits later in the summer months. They also feed on peppers, eggplant and potatoes. They can defoliate a plant in just a few days. There can be two generations of tomato hornworms every year. A bunch of them can spell disaster in your garden!
How To Control Tomato Hornworms
- Use a liquid Bt spray like Green Stepâ„¢ Caterpillar Control
Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) does not harm animals, people or the environment. It paralyzes the horn worms and they die from starvation. Spray the top and bottom of the tomato plant leaves. Repeat every 5 to 7 days until you don’t see anymore worms. Bt is safe to use right up to the time of picking your tomatoes.
- Another all-natural environmentally friendly pesticide that is safe for use around kids and pets is Plant Guardianâ„¢ Houseplant Insecticidal Soap
Spraying the undersides of the leaves with an insecticidal soap mixture kills the eggs at the first sign of seeing the moths. A hard spray of water will also help if your plants are strong enough. Wiping the eggs off with alcohol on a q-tip is also effective.
- Introduce Parasitic Wasps into your garden
Parasitc Wasps (Braconid and Trichogramma) lay their eggs on the larva. If you see little white things on the worm don’t kill the worm, place it in a jar with a fresh leaf and keep feeding it until the wasps do their job. These are the cocoons of the wasp and their larva feed inside the host and will kill it. This guy below has just met his maker!
Hornworm with parasite eggs (left)-Joe Boggs, Braconid Wasp (right)-Perdue University
- Hand Pick
Tomato Hornworms are so big you cannot miss these guys. If you don’t want to touch them I recommend cutting them in half with the kitchen scissors. In the fall when you turn your garden pick out any pupae (cocoons) you might find and destroy them.
- Companion Planting
Plant marigolds as a deterrent around or between your tomatoes. Marigolds stink to a lot of different bugs and they avoid them.