Tomato hornworms (Manduca quinquemaculata) are very large caterpillars that have a "horn-like" tail that gives them their name.
- Tomato hornworms feed only on plants of the nightshade family, especially tomato. Potato, eggplant and pepper are also attacked.
- Hornworms chew leaves and can completely defoliate plants.
- They can also chew holes in fruit.
- Damage occurs July through September.
How to identify tomato hornworms
Hornworms are amongst the largest caterpillars in Minnesota and can measure up to four inches in length.
- Small tomato hornworms are yellow to white in color with no markings.
- Large caterpillars develop eight white, "V-shaped" marks on each side.
- Tomato hornworms have a black projection or "horn" on the last abdominal segment.
- Sometimes referred to as "sphinx", "hawk", or "hummingbird" moths.
- They are large, heavy-bodied insects with narrow front wings.
- It is a mottled gray-brown color with yellow spots on the sides of the abdomen.
- The moth has a wingspread of four to five inches.
- The hindwings have alternating light and dark bands.
Life cycle of tomato hornworms
Moths live through the winter and emerge in spring.
- After mating, females deposit oval, smooth, light green eggs on lower and upper leaf surfaces.
- Caterpillars hatch, begin to feed and are full grown in three to four weeks.
- The mature caterpillars drop off plants and burrow into the soil to transform into pupape.
- Moths emerge in two weeks to begin a second generation, during mid summer.
- Second generation moths deposit eggs on host plants, such as tomato.
- Caterpillars feed until late summer or early fall and then pupate.
- The pupae remain in the soil through winter.
Damage caused by tomato hornworms
Tomato is the host of choice, but they have also been found on potato, eggplant and pepper.
There are many solanaceous weeds that also serve as alternate hosts, including horsenettle, jimsonweed and nightshade.
- Large numbers of caterpillars can occur in home gardens and can quickly defoliate plants.
- Tomato hornworm caterpillars start feeding on the leaves on the upper parts of the plants.
- The caterpillars blend in with the leaves and might not be noticed until most of the damage is done.
- As they feed, they create dark green or black droppings that are clearly visible.
- Older tomato hornworms can destroy several leaves as well as the fruit.
As they become larger, the amount of defoliation increases. The last caterpillar stage consumes nearly as much as all the younger stages combined.
How to protect your plants from tomato hornworms
Check plants at least twice per week during the summer to check for tomato hornworms.
Remove weeds regularly
- Remove weeds frequently to reduce the number of sites where worms can lay eggs.
- Till the soil after harvest to destroy burrowing caterpillars and pupae.
Pick hornworms off plants
- Handpick hornworms from infested plants.
- This is the most effective means of managing them.
- Tomato hornworms are easy to find because of their large size.
- Drop them into soapy water to kill them.
Natural enemies can control hornworms
There are many natural enemies of the tomato hornworm.
- General predatory insects such as lady beetles and green lacewings often prey upon the egg stage and on young caterpillars.
- Another important predator is paper wasp, Polistes spp. This common wasp feeds on many types of caterpillars including those found in gardens.
Tomato hornworms are also parasitized by a number of insects.
- One of the most common is a small braconid wasp, Cotesia congregatus.
- Larvae hatching from wasp eggs are laid on the hornworm.
- These wasp larvae feed on the inside of the hornworm until the wasp is ready to pupate.
- The cocoons appear as white projections protruding from the hornworms’ body.
- If such projections are observed, leave the hornworms in the garden to allow the adult wasps to emerge.
- These wasps kill the hornworms when they emerge from the cocoons.
- Then the wasps look for other hornworms to parasitize.
Pesticides are generally not necessary. But, if other options are not effective or practical, you may consider applying a product.
It is easy to control small caterpillars than large ones. Treat tomato hornworms before defoliation is severe.
Some pesticides that can be used for tomato hornworm treatment are:
- Insecticidal soap
- Bacillus thuringiensis subsp. kurstaki
CAUTION: Mention of a pesticide or use of a pesticide label is for educational purposes only. Always follow the pesticide label directions attached to the pesticide container you are using. Remember, the label is the law.
Be sure that the fruit/vegetable you wish to treat is listed on the label of the pesticide you intend to use. Also be sure to observe the number of days between pesticide application and when you can harvest your crop.
Reviewed in 2018