How to Get Rid of Tomato Hornworms

by Jack Grover
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In the world of gardening, few pests can compete with the destructive power of tomato hornworms.

These uninvited guests, large green caterpillars with unique horn-like tails, love feasting on your precious tomato plants, leaving you with nothing but gnawed foliage and stolen harvests.

But fear not, green thumbs — we’ve got five proven strategies to help you evict these voracious villains. Let’s get into it!

What Are Tomato Hornworms? An Overview

The tomato hornworm, a caterpillar that is as vibrant as it is voracious, is the larval stage of the five-spotted hawk moth, Manduca quinquemaculata.

These creatures are often the source of nightmares for vegetable gardeners. Despite their beauty — brilliant green bodies adorned with a peculiar yet harmless horn — their destructive dining habits can wreak havoc on tomatoes and other members of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family.

Tomato hornworms are not picky eaters. Besides tomatoes, they also find eggplants, peppers, and potatoes particularly palatable.

Their excellent camouflage makes them hard to spot, often leading gardeners to discover extensive damage before even noticing the culprit. Look out for their black droppings around the base of your plants or on the foliage — a surefire sign of a hornworm invasion.

Left unchecked, these pests can defoliate a plant in mere days due to their hearty appetites. However, early detection and removal can save your plants from irreversible harm.

Lifecycle of Tomato Hornworms

Understanding the lifecycle of the tomato hornworm can provide valuable insights into effectively controlling their population.

This journey begins in the soil, where these insects overwinter as dark brown pupae. Come late spring, they emerge as five-spotted hawk moths, ready for mating.

Lifecycle of Tomato Hornworms

After mating, female moths lay round, greenish-white eggs on the undersides of leaves — the perfect hideout from unsuspecting gardeners and predators. Within four to five days, these eggs hatch into tiny hornworms that set out on a month-long eating spree.

Having reached full size after four weeks of non-stop feasting, the hornworm then retreats back into the soil to pupate. This transformation period leads to the emergence of a new moth, thus completing one full cycle of this pest’s life.

What Causes Tomato Hornworms?

When it comes to tomato hornworm infestations, the culprit is often closer than one might think. These pests are particularly drawn to vegetable gardens abundant with nightshade family members such as tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants.

However, the preference of these creatures goes beyond their larval appetite — it extends into their adult phase as well.

As five-spotted hawk moths, these insects are partial to the nectar of certain plants that bloom at night. Plants like moonflower, evening primrose, and four o’clock with large fragrant flowers that open in the darkness of the night are irresistible to these moths.

If your garden caters to both these phases of the insect — providing both food for the larvae in the form of your precious nightshade vegetables and nectar for the adult moths from your beautiful night bloomers — it becomes an all-you-can-eat buffet for tomato hornworms. 

Therefore, a garden with such a diverse range of plants is more likely to experience hornworm issues.

Recognizing this correlation is the first step towards creating a strategy that keeps these voracious visitors at bay without compromising your garden’s biodiversity.

Now, let’s move on to the most effective ways to get rid of tomato hornworms in your garden.

Pick Off the Worms by Hand

Roll up your sleeves and get ready to play detective. The first method in our anti-hornworm arsenal involves manually picking off these pests.

This task requires diligence as the color of the worm blends seamlessly into the foliage. Look for signs such as striped leaves or dark droppings. Once identified, gently remove them and dispose of them far away from your crops.

Although this method may seem tedious, it is undoubtedly effective. Regular surveillance of your tomato plants can prevent an infestation from reaching disastrous proportions. Plus, this hands-on approach is free and doesn’t involve any chemicals that could potentially harm your garden ecosystem.

Use Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis)

Nature itself provides an excellent solution to our hornworm problem — a bacterium known as Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt. Easily available in most gardening stores, Bt is a natural soil-dwelling bacterium that acts as a lethal stomach poison for these worms.

Apply Bt onto the leaves of your tomato plants and wait for the hornworms to take the bait. Once consumed, Bt causes these pests to stop eating immediately, eventually leading to their demise within days.

Despite its deadly effect on hornworms, Bt is harmless to humans, pets, and beneficial insects.

Till Soil Annually

An often overlooked strategy in battling hornworms involves tilling your soil annually.

During winter months, these pesky creatures burrow deep into the ground, hiding in their pupal stage until warm weather signals their return. By tilling your soil at the end of each growing season or before planting begins, you bring these hidden pupae to the surface, disrupting their life cycle.

Exposed pupae become easy targets for birds and other predators.

Regular soil tilling can significantly reduce the population of hornworms over time.

Encourage Natural Predators

Tomato hornworms, despite their menacing presence, are not without natural enemies. In fact, encouraging biodiversity in your garden and attracting beneficial insects can connect you with allies that could significantly reduce or even eliminate these pests.

Chickens, if allowed in your locale, can be particularly helpful in this battle. Letting a few of these birds loose in your tomato patch could spell the end of your hornworm woes. Chickens have an insatiable appetite for these caterpillars and can efficiently control their population. 

Other feathered friends like crows and owls also enjoy feasting on hornworms, though they might sneak a tomato or two from your plants.

However, the most formidable predator of tomato hornworms is the parasitic braconid wasp. These wasps lay their eggs on the backs of hornworms, providing a gruesome nursery where hatched larvae consume the host worm as a food source, eventually leading to its death.

If you stumble upon a hornworm speckled with tiny white egg sacs, resist the urge to dispose of it. This is a clear sign that you have a healthy population of parasitic wasps in your garden working tirelessly to control the hornworm menace.

Leave the eggs to hatch, and soon enough, an army of wasps will rise to protect your garden from a variety of pests. These wasps pose no threat to humans, making them the perfect allies in this garden battle.

To lure these beneficial wasps into your garden, consider planting dill, clover, sweet alyssum, or fennel. These plants are known to attract braconid wasps and can act as an effective line of defense against hornworm infestations.

By encouraging natural predators and beneficial insects, you’re not only keeping tomato hornworms at bay but also promoting a balanced ecosystem within your garden.

Related: Natural Pest Control: 7 Ways to Attract Beneficial Insects to Your Garden

Craft Your Own Repellant

If you enjoy a good DIY project, crafting your own natural repellant could be a rewarding and efficient way to deter these destructive pests.

Two common household items — dishwashing liquid and cayenne pepper — can create a potent homemade pesticide that spells doom for tomato hornworms. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Begin by mixing dishwashing liquid with water in a spray bottle. This concoction serves as an effective and organic worm killer.
  2. Spray this organic solution thoroughly over the plant foliage, ensuring every leaf is coated with the soapy mixture.
  3. While the leaves are still wet, sprinkle cayenne pepper over them and the fruit. The fiery nature of cayenne pepper acts as a robust deterrent against potential intruders looking for a meal.

This dual-action treatment not only eradicates existing hornworms but also repels new invaders, making it an efficient method for maintaining a hornworm-free garden.

Remember: Persistence is key when using this treatment — heavy rains can wash away the soap and cayenne mixture, so reapplication after each downpour will ensure constant protection for your plants.

By crafting your own repellant, you take control of what goes onto your plants, keeping them free from harmful chemicals while efficiently warding off unwelcome garden pests.

How to Prevent Tomato Hornworms?

Prevention, as they say, is better than cure. When it comes to dealing with tomato hornworms, proactive measures can save you a lot of time and effort in managing an out-of-control infestation.

Two key practices can significantly reduce the chances of a hornworm invasion:

  • Soil tilling is a simple yet effective method that disrupts the life cycle of these pests. Remember, tomato hornworms spend their winters deep in the soil as pupae, waiting for warmer weather to emerge as moths. Regularly turning your soil can expose these hidden pupae, making them easy targets for predators or simply destroying them in the process.
  • Crop rotation throws a wrench in the plans of emerging moths looking for suitable plants to lay their eggs. By changing the location or types of crops you plant each year, you prevent these moths from finding their preferred host plants. This disorientation can discourage them from laying eggs, thus preventing a new generation of hornworms from tormenting your garden.

These preventative measures not only help create a less inviting environment for tomato hornworms but also contribute to healthier soil and stronger plants.

The Bottom Line

While tomato hornworms may seem like formidable foes at first glance, they are not invincible. 

Employing a variety of tactics such as handpicking worms, using Bt, tilling soil annually, inviting natural predators, and creating homemade repellants can empower you in reclaiming control over your beloved garden from these leaf-munching marauders.

Remember — every problem has a solution; sometimes, all it takes is a little creativity and persistence.


How long do hornworms live?

The lifespan of a hornworm is typically short-lived.

From the moment they hatch from eggs, these caterpillars spend about four weeks eating relentlessly and growing to their full size. After this, they burrow into the ground to pupate — a stage that lasts over winter. They then emerge as moths and live for another couple of weeks to mate and lay eggs.

The entire cycle from egg to moth roughly spans 8-10 weeks.

Do tomato hornworms bite or sting?

Despite their intimidating appearance, tomato hornworms do not bite or sting.

Their horn-like tail, although formidable looking, is completely harmless. These creatures pose no physical threat to humans or pets — their primary interest lies in devouring your tomato plants.

Are there plants that repel hornworms?

While there are no plants known to directly repel hornworms through their scent or presence, there are several plant species that can indirectly help manage hornworm populations.

Dill, clover, fennel, and sweet alyssum are known to attract parasitic wasps — the natural predators of tomato hornworms. These wasps lay their eggs on the bodies of hornworms. Once hatched, the wasp larvae feed on the hornworm, eventually leading to its death.

Therefore, by planting these wasp-attracting plants in your garden, you’re essentially inviting a natural control force that can keep the hornworm population in check.

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