As our tomatoes loom tall and stout, evil forces are gathering in the midst of all this greenery. Mother Nature has created a sinister villain capable of tomato massacres and total devastation, and it is now our mission to stop its advancement at all costs, if we are to have any tomatoes to savor....
Never mind that this sinister creature is only a mere caterpillar- don't be fooled into thinking that no damage will be done! Hornworms can devour half of a tomato plant in a matter of days if they are not found and destroyed. They are voracious little buggers, so large they look more like an animal than an insect, with radioactive green guts that ooze out in copious quantities when squished.
I know it's time to start searching for the little monsters when our tomato tops rise above the stakes and cages. Those tippy top branches are usually where you will find your hornworms, since caterpillars have a tendency to climb up, up, up.
Here's what you will need on your hunt: a bucket, and preferably, a scissors to... terminate... them. The hornworms can be squashed under your foot, but you'll get green gooey guts all over your shoe. If you are incredibly brave and of true superhero stature, you might be able to squish them between your fingers. But that is rare and takes exceptional courage.... so a scissors does the job quite nicely, snipping them right in half. And actually, we cut them up into bits because our chickens won't eat them whole, oddly. (I have yet to try giving them to the pigs... I wonder.....)
As you head out into the garden, you are looking for hornworm damage. Search for stray branches that are stripped of their leaves, usually towards the top of the plant. You can see in the photo that the hornworm worked its way right down the branch, chomping everything in its path.
Here are the branches I found yesterday as soon as I walked out into the garden:
Once you have found some hornworm damage, the next step is to locate the nearby hornworm. They are fast (for caterpillars), but not that fast. You should be able to follow the route they have taken by following the damaged branches until they seem to end. Another big clue is a bundle of hornworm poop, which looks somewhat like a small black mulberry. Where there is poop, there is hornworm, usually right above the poop.
It didn't take me long to find some incriminating poop near the damaged branches. I tried to take a photo of the poop, but it didn't come out so good... if you look very closely, you just might be able to see it, there in the center.
So now I knew there was definitely a hornworm in the vicinity. The hard part is spotting the villain- they are one of the best examples of perfectly matched camouflage that nature has created. Additionally, they hang on the underside of the branches, so you have to bend down and twist your head and crane your neck, looking up, to really spot them. After about 10 minutes of searching (yep, it actually took that long!), I finally spotted this little dude:
Can you see him there in the center, hanging on the underside of the branch? He was actually quite far from the damaged area- as I said, they can move fast. During my first encounter with hornworms, I found myself unable to squish them, and so piled them up instead in the center of the garden. At one point I walked away for about a minute or two, and when I came back, they were all gone! I found one of them a good 20 feet away, making his dash for freedom.
Here's a close-up shot, where you can get a view of those power-munching jaws. If you were bug-sized, I imagine this thing would look like Godzilla!
Now the tough part- they must be killed. In our case, I feed them to the chickens, who will only eat them if I cut them into small pieces (don't ask me how I figured that out). So I drop them in my bucket, and cut them into about 3 or 4 small bits. It's not pretty. Deal with them as you will, but don't imagine that you can just move them elsewhere- they will return.
Another successful hunt! I've been finding about 3 per day, and they are getting larger each time I find them, which means more damage... it's time to step up the patrol!!