Black Cutworms

Need to know

  • The black cutworm is pale gray to black and can grow up to 1 1/2 inches long. 
  • Most black cutworms in Iowa develop from moths blown in on southern storm fronts. 
  • Cutworms feed on the stems at the soil surface, and damage is often concentrated in low, damp areas and in late-planted areas where grass had been a weed problem prior to tillage. 
  • Special management operations for black cutworms are generally not necessary in Iowa. 

Description of black cutworms

The black cutworm is up to 1 to 1 1/2 inches long, pale gray to black in color.  It has no distinct stripes or markings except for small black tubercles at the base of each of 4 hairs on each body segment.  The skin surface is roughened with a granular texture.  Black cutworms feed on a wide variety of plants including vegetables, grasses, corn and alfalfa.

Black cutworm (top) and dingy cutworm (bottom).
Black cutworm (top) and dingy cutworm (bottom).

Life cycle of black cutworms

A few black cutworms spend the winter in Iowa as an adulr moth but most of our cutworms are from eggs layed by moths that migrate into the state on storm fronts that begin in the southern U.S.  Black cutworm moths may be active from late March, but moth flight peaks in early May.  The moths are attracted to emerging green vegetation, especially in low, wet areas, where they lay their eggs.  These eggs hatch into tiny caterpillars that feed on grasses and weeds at night and hide in the soil during the daytime.

The black cutworm may have 2 or 3 generations per summer.  Damage from the second and third generation is generally not serious because many vegetable plants are well established and too woody for the larvae to cut.

On the black cutworm (top), the inside pair of tubercles is about 1/3 to 1/2 the size of the outside pair. On the dingy cutworm (bottom) these tubercles are about the same diameter..
On the black cutworm (top), the inside pair of tubercles is about 1/3 to 1/2 the size of the outside pair. On the dingy cutworm (bottom) these tubercles are about the same diameter.

Damage caused by black cutworms

Cutworms feed on the stems at the soil surface.  They do not consume an entire plant but rather take a few bites from one plant before moving to the next plant or another row.

Damage is often concentrated in low, damp areas and in late-planted areas where grass had been a weed problem prior to tillage.  Cutworms can be extremely damaging where transplants are planted through black plastic.  The heat that accumulates under the plastic may attract the caterpillars, and cutworms under the plastic are protected and difficult to control.

Management of black cutworms

Special management operations for black cutworms are generally not necessary in Iowa.  Preplant, soil incorporation or transplant treatment with insecticide is possible but seldom warranted.  Gardens with a history of cutworm damage should be monitored, and all plants should be watched during the transplant establishment period for the occasional cutworm outbreak.

Low levels of damage can generally be tolerated and damaged plants replaced.  Insecticide rescue treatment using either sprays or granules is not usually practical.  Physical barriers such as tin cans or paper/Styrofoam cups with bottoms removed are effective.

Do you live in Iowa and have an insect you would like identified?

The Iowa State University Plant & Insect Diagnostic Clinic will identify your insect, provide information on what it eats, life cycle, and if it is a pest the best ways to manage them.  Please see our website for current forms, fees, and instructions on preserving and mailing insects.   

Contact information for each state's diagnostic laboratory for U.S. residents.  If you live outside of Iowa please do not submit a sample without contacting the Plant & Insect Diagnostic Clinic.  

Last reviewed:
December 2021

Links to this article are strongly encouraged, and this article may be republished without further permission if published as written and if credit is given to the author, Horticulture and Home Pest News, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. If this article is to be used in any other manner, permission from the author is required. This article was originally published on September 12, 2016. The information contained within may not be the most current and accurate depending on when it is accessed.