Tobacco Hornworm polishing off some tomato leaves. Photo from the University of Georgia.

Tobacco Hornworm polishing off some tomato leaves. Photo from the University of Georgia.

One of the most startling pests that can be found in the vegetable garden is the hornworm. I recently happened upon a Tobacco Hornworm on one of my ‘Striped German’ heirloom tomato plants. Watch this video for the reaction of a hornworm first-timer after the finding. There are two hornworms that are found munching down on tomatoes — Tobacco Hornworm (Manduca sexta) and Tomato Hornworm (Manduca quninquemaculata). The two species of hornworms are easily deciphered by the color of the horn on the tail end of the caterpillar — red for tobacco and black for tomato.

Identifying that you have hornworm should not be a problem for most folks. You either spot an enormous prehistoric-looking worm on your plants, or see obvious feeding damage which leads to the finding of an enormous prehistoric-looking worm. As with all caterpillars, hornworm lives as a moth for part of its life-cycle. The gray-brown moth emerges in the late-spring. It’s commonly referred to as a hummingbird moth because of it’s hovering flight habit and size (sometimes reaching five inches).

Management of hornworm is easy. For most gardeners, just picking these monsters off and squishing them will suffice. If your hornworm is covered in white cocoons, you should not squish it! You want the cocoons to hatch and release parasitic wasps that will hunt down other hornworms to lay eggs in and eventually kill. Spraying for this pest is silly. If for some reason you have a ridiculously large infestation that took you unawares, there are organic BT sprays, usually under the Dipel name that will take care of business. Before you get rid of your hornworm, make sure you take a picture — they love the camera.