Differentiating between caterpillars is important when trying to keep them off plants, especially for lovers of butterflies and lovely nocturnal Lepidoptera such as the Luna moth. Caterpillars are the wormlike larvae of butterflies and moths which dine on plant leaves and stems. Some are cute and fuzzy with patterns of stripes and dots, while others, including tomato hornworms (the larval stage of large, brown moths), are huge and fierce looking. |
Caterpillar infestations can be a problem, because some are capable of killing plants by stripping their foliage. Signs of a problem include curled leaves that may be sheltering caterpillars as well as holes or chewed edges on leaves. Fortunately, the Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT) says that most species cause little damage. Keeping a field guide to butterflies and moths handy can help a gardener decide which caterpillars to welcome and which to battle.
The most environmentally friendly way of removing caterpillars is to handpick them off plants and either crush or drown them. This is particularly easy if there aren't lots of caterpillars. Be sure to wear gloves when removing them, because a small number of species have spiny hairs (setae) that puncture skin and transmit irritating toxins. Some have harmless lookalikes, so it isn't always possible to identify the dangerous kind. Unlike stinging caterpillars and a few rare moths that bite, butterflies don't hurt people.
Gardeners who feel squeamish when staring face to face with a 4-inch-long tomato or tobacco hornworm should consider snipping off the plant stem on which it resides. Just drop it stem and all into a container of soapy water. If there are lots of caterpillars on flowers or vegetable plants, another solution is to spray with Bacillus thuringiensis, which MOBOT says is a naturally occurring soil bacterium that has low toxicity for people, pets, birds, bees and fish. MOBOT recommends applying it every three to five days for flowers and once every two weeks for vegetables until the infestation diminishes.
For extreme infestations, MOBOT suggests spraying plant leaves with pyrethrum, a powerful insecticide made from chrysanthemums. Although not very toxic to people, it can cause respiratory problems and rashes.
Butterflies will visit if you give them what they want. Gardeners who enjoy them should plant a variety of nectar-producing flowers, including some species commonly thought of as weeds. To further ensure visits, it is necessary to grow the specific plants on which specific butterfly species lay their eggs. Some baby Lepidoptera will only eat the leaves of one plant. But butterfly lovers have to be mentally prepared for some plant damage from caterpillars.
Caterpillars to Battle
Some larvae are nasty customers that no one wants to invite into their gardens. These include the huge, voracious Manduca species, better known as the tomato hornworm (M. quinquemaculata) and tobacco hornworm (M. sexta), which strip the foliage of eggplant, peppers, potatoes, tobacco and tomatoes. Tiny cabbage loopers are even less picky. If you don't notice them setting up housekeeping in your garden, they will ungraciously wipe out a wide range of vegetable foliage.
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