Check Tomatoes for Hornworms

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tobacco hornworm feeding on tomato

Tobacco hornworms also feed on tomato leaves. Image by Charlotte Glen

If the leaves of your tomato plant seem to suddenly be disappearing, take a closer look. There is a good chance there are one or more hornworms feeding on your plant.

Left unchecked, hornworms can quickly devour tomato leaves and even defoliate plants. Their green color provides a perfect camouflage – as a result, hornworms, which can grow up to 3” long, often aren’t noticed until they get quite large.

Hornworms are the caterpillar stage of sphinx moths. They get their name from the harmless spine, or horn, found on their back end. There are several different species of hornworms found in our region, two of which feed on tomato plants: the tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) and the tomato hornmworm (Manduca quinquemaculata).

hornworm moth

Adult female tomato hornworm moth, Manduca quinquemaculata. Image taken by Shawn Hanrahan at the Texas A&M Insect Collection in College Station, Texas

These closely related insects look very similar and both turn into medium-sized brown moths. In the caterpillar stage, the color of the horn can help you tell the difference – tobacco hornworms have red horns while the horn on a tomato hornworm is blue. Watch this short YouTube video from NC State for more tips on how to tell the difference.

Determining which type of hornworm is eating your tomato plant is not necessary to decide what you should do about them. Both hornworms are voracious feeders that should be removed from tomato plants as soon as they are found.

If left to eat their fill, hornworms can kill young plants and weaken larger plants, resulting in reduced fruit production. We can have two or three generations of hornworms over the summer, so be sure to check your plants frequently for new caterpillars.

If you only have a few plants, checking your plants regularly and picking the caterpillars off by hand is an effective way to control them. You can drown the caterpillars in a bucket of soapy water or feed them to the chickens.

If handpicking is not feasible, there are several organic insecticides that control caterpillars if applied when the caterpillars are small. Examples include products that contain spinosad, B.t., neem oil or azadirachtin as the active ingredient.

When applying any pesticide, including organics, be sure to read and follow all label directions. Apply insecticides late in the evening when bees are not active to minimize harm to pollinators.

Hornworm covered in wasp coccoons.

This hornworm has been parasitized by braconid wasps. Image by Charlotte Glen

If you happen to find a hornworm that looks as if white cigars are growing out of its back, leave it in the garden. The “cigars” are actually the cocoons of braconid wasps. These tiny, non-stinging wasps parasitize hornworm caterpillars and help to naturally control their populations.

Other beneficial insects that help control caterpillars in the garden include assassin bugs, spiders, and predatory wasps such as yellow jackets and paper wasps.

Learn More!

For answers to your gardening questions, contact an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer. In Chatham County, EMGs are available to answer your gardening questions Monday and Thursday afternoons, from 1:00 – 4:00. To contact a Chatham EMG:

  • Call  919-545-2715
  • Email chathamemgv@gmail.com
  • Visit N.C. Cooperative Extension – Chatham County Center, located in the Chatham County Agriculture and Conference Center, 1192 US 64W Business, Pittsboro. Directions
  • Visit EMGs at the Fearrington Farmers Market the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays of the month, 4:00 – 6:00.

Contacting the EMGs in your county will ensure you get the best advice for your area and will connect you with local resources. Connect with EMGs in your county:

N.C. Cooperative Extension has an office in every county. Find your local N.C. Cooperative Extension County Center.

Use Extension Search to find research based information from Cooperative Extension systems across the U.S.