Tomato Hornworm

Description of tomato hornworms

The tomato hornworm is one of our best known garden pests. It’s almost as big around as your thumb and can be 4 to 5 inches long. It’s bright green and has a hornlike hook at one end that can be either red or green depending on which of the two species you have on your plant. After feeding, hornworms move to the soil where they pupate and spend the winter. The following summer the pupae transform into five-spotted hawk moths and start the cycle over. 

A hornworm on a tomato plant
Hornworm on a tomato plant 

Life cycle of tomato hornworms

Tomato hornworms feed on the leaves and fruit of tomatoes and other vegetables including eggplant, potatoes and peppers. They can quickly defoliate portions of the plant, reduce its productivity, and heavily scar the fruit. Toward the end of the summer when the caterpillars are fully grown, it seems they can eat about a leaf an hour!

Management of tomato hornworms

The first control option is to pick the caterpillars off your plant by hand. They won’t hurt you but the challenge is that they are well camouflaged. They are the same color as the foliage so it will take some hunting to find them when they are small. When they are big, they will be easier to find but then that means they will have grown and developed by feeding on your tomato foliage already!

Another control option is to use a biological insecticide known as Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt or a synthetic home garden insecticide available in local garden centers. Be sure to follow label directions.

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 states 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.  

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, Yard and Garden, 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 13, 2016. The information contained within may not be the most current and accurate depending on when it is accessed.