Recognizing and Eliminating the Tomato Hornworm

Have you ever walked out into the garden to discover one of your tomato plants completely decimated? You’re likely looking at the work of a tomato hornworm. 

Still learning about gardening? Check out this guide to growing Roma tomatoes in your garden!

TOMATO hornworm on a plant

Tomato hornworms (Manduca quinquemaculata) are often confused with the closely related tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta). Both can cause plenty of damage to a tomato crop.  

These pests are monsters, growing to 4″ long. Their bright green color allows these large caterpillars to blend in and become almost invisible on a tomato plant. You likely won’t see them until some damage is already done. 

Understanding the tomato hornworm life cycle

Tomato hornworms are the larval stage of a night-flying hawk moth, or sphinx moth. These moths lay eggs on the leaves of tomato plants.

Small larvae — caterpillars — hatch from the eggs and quickly grow to full size. Once they’ve achieved full size, they burrow underground and pupate in the soil. Adult moths emerge in the springtime.

The hornworm pupa are about two and a half inches long and brown. They are sometimes unearthed by gardeners in the spring, before the weather has warmed enough to hatch. 

pupae of tomato hornworm

Hornworm damage

These voracious pests can decimate the leaves of a tomato plant overnight, causing tomato fruit to sunburn in hot weather. Larger caterpillars will also chomp through green tomatoes, making them inedible for humans. 

Signs to watch for

As the season progresses and warms, keep an eye on out for damage to tomato leaves. Bare stems are often the first indication that you have a problem. 

Look more closely and you will see small, dark green caterpillar droppings. Small round clumps of poop cluster together to look almost like little grenades. 

When you see poop, start looking for the elusive tomato hornworm grasping tightly to stems. 

I’ve only recently discovered – thanks to one of my readers! – that hornworms will glow if you shine a black light on them. If you see signs of them but are unable to spot them during daylight hours, take a blacklight out after dark. 

braconid wasp cocoons on a green caterpillar

Beneficial insects

The idea of integrated pest management allows Mother Nature to handle problems without the use of harsh pesticides. [For more on natural pest control, go here.]

The relationship between the braconid wasp and tomato hornworms is a good example of this in action.

Female braconid wasps lay their eggs just under the skin of tomato worms. (I know, ew!) 

When those eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the hornworm then make little white cocoons attached to the back and sides of the caterpillar’s body. If you see a sight like this in your garden, let the hornworm be. More wasps will hatch and continue to be a beneficial insect in your yard! 

Combating tomato hornworms

The real question most people have is “how do I get rid of tomato hornworms?” If you’re squeamish, you won’t like the answer. 

You’re going to need to hand pick them and remove them. You can use pruners to clip off the leaf they’re on, but if the caterpillar is clinging to a bigger stem, you may have to pull them off. With your hand. Ew. Wear gloves. 

Dispose of the worm where its life cycle will be interrupted. If you keep chickens, they will make quick work of the problem for you. 

green caterpillar holding onto a plant stem

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2 comments… add one
  • Romeo Charlie May 13, 2021 @ 16:54

    I use a UV flashlight and shine it on the plants in the late evening. The UV causes the Hornworms to be luminescent and glow which makes them easy to find as opposed to looking for them in daylight. If they have Braconid Wasp larva on them I do not kill them and instead take the worms to a place well away from my garden and leave them so the Braconid Wasp larvae continue to live on the Hornworms and produce more wasps that will eventually kill more Hornworms.

    • Attainable Sustainable May 15, 2021 @ 7:23

      Using a UV flashlight is great tip. Thanks for sharing!

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