Garden Villains–Encountering the Hornworm

Our garden has been struggling hard core this year. Our peppers have consistently done well, but everything else has been a flop. We felt there was still hope for the tomato plants, though. They just seemed to be late producing.

That hope died when we got back from our vacation to the lake. Every single tomato plant we had planted, had been stripped of its leaves.

edit12The culprit–hornworms.

edit7Aren’t they gruesome, yet kinda cool too? They have super good camouflage making it really hard to spot them. We typically don’t even know they are there until our tomato plants start to become naked. Normally, we can catch them before they do too much damage; however, because we were away for a week, our tomato plants fell victim. I guess in this case it is “while the gardener is away the hornworms will play.” They are quite the evil little villain, and have thoroughly shot all chances of anymore tomato sandwiches for me.

Villain Profile:

There are 2 varieties of hornworm that can often be seen together on a plant, and they look identical. There is the tomato hornworm, Manduca quinquemaculata, and the tobacco hornworm, Manduca sexta. The biggest difference between the two is the tobacco hornworm has a red horn, and the tomato hornworm has a black horn. Tabacco hornworms also have 7 oblique lateral white lines on them, and the tomato hornworm boasts more of a v-shape in their white lines. We identified our hornworms as the tobacco variety because of their red horn. I will note that some of my research did not differentiate between the two hornworms.

edit4Hornworms are actually caterpillars.They will turn into what is known as the sphinx, hawk, or hummingbird moth.

Photo Cred: University of Nebraska

The adults will lay eggs on leaves, the caterpillars will eat their fill until they are about 3-4 inches in length. After they have matured as a caterpillar, they drop off the plant and bury themselves in the soil to pupate. Moths will emerge 2 weeks later. They do this twice in the summer–once in early summer and again in late summer or fall. Those that pupate in the later half, will stay in the ground until spring.

Photo Cred: UKY

The hornworm gets its name from the horn that is on the tail of the caterpillar.

edit3They are always green with spots, but can range in size.

Criminal Actions:

Hornworms strip tomato plants of all of their foliage, and will even eat the fruit of the plant too.

edit9While tomato plants are their target victim, they like anything in the nightshade family. Peppers, eggplant, and potato are also in danger.

Fighting Back:

The most effective way to control hornworms is to just pick them off the plant… gross, I know. I wear gloves, because they can pee on you. They can hold on to the tomato plant pretty tight, so you may have to wrestle the dudes off. After hunting for all that you can find (trust me, it isn’t easy spotting them), you can throw them in soapy water to kill them. I just fed ours to the chickens.

These were all of the ones I picked off of our plants
These were all of the ones I picked off of our plants

Because the caterpillars can do so much damage in such a little amount of time, it is important to regularly check your plants. Afterall, there is a villain a foot, and they are ready to chomp down on some foliage.

edit11Despite essentially killing our tomato plants, hornworms are pretty interesting. They also make for some cool pics. For the record, though, the pictures I got do not mean I have gone soft. The tomato hornworms are not welcome in my garden.






See ya!



University of Minnesota


University of Nebraska

University of Florida

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