Tomato plants are highly prone to pest damage, especially from a wide range of destructive caterpillars.
Caterpillars You Can Find On Tomato Plants can feed on tender seedlings, skeletonize leaves, and dig into ripening tomatoes, which can be disastrous for you to have a tomato garden.
To maintain a healthy and productive tomato garden Identifying and controlling common tomato caterpillars is a must for a healthy tomato garden.
This comprehensive guide will cover 10 of the most damaging caterpillars on tomato plants and provide organic solutions to eliminate them.
You’ll also learn about prevention methods, signs of infestation, and how to inspect for caterpillars. Follow these tips and enjoy lush, caterpillar-free tomato plants and bountiful harvests.
- What Caterpillars Are Most Common on Tomato Plants?
- 1. Tomato Hornworms
- 2. Cabbage Loopers
- 3. Imported Cabbageworms
- 4. Cross-Striped Cabbageworms
- 5. Yellowstriped Armyworms
- 6. Beet Armyworms
- 7. Fall Armyworms
- 8. Cutworms
- 9. Tomato Pinworms
- 10. Tomato Fruitworms
- How To Prevent Caterpillars on Your Tomato Plants
Over 20 species of caterpillars feed on tomato foliage and fruits. The most common tomato pests include hornworms, loopers, armyworms, cutworms, and white cabbage worms.
Among these caterpillars, tomato hornworms and tobacco hornworms are likely the most widespread and destructive. But even small caterpillars like leafminers and fruit worms can wipe out tomato plants if not controlled fast.
Here are 10 of the most common caterpillars you’re likely to encounter in the Tomato garden:
1. Tomato and Tobacco Hornworms
These large green caterpillars have white v-shaped markings and prominent horns on their posterior. They rapidly defoliate plants and damage fruits. Handpick them off plants and apply Bacillus thuringiensis.
2. Cabbage Loopers
Pale green 1-inch loopers leave large, irregular holes in foliage. Use row covers and keep populations down with Bacillus thuringiensis or neem oil.
3. Imported Cabbageworms
Velvety green with a faint yellow stripe. Chew-ragged holes in leaves. Apply Bacillus thuringiensis weekly and handpick caterpillars.
4. Cross-striped Cabbageworms
Have green and black stripes. Skeletonize leaves and stunt growth. Use reflective mulch and repeated applications of Bacillus thuringiensis.
5. Yellowstriped Armyworms
Dark caterpillars with bright yellow stripes along their bodies. Handpick and apply neem oil or spinosad early.
6. Beet Armyworms
Green with white dots feed in clusters on the undersides of the leaves. Remove by hand and apply neem oil preventatively.
7. Fall Armyworms
Brown with an inverted “Y” on the head. Cause trails in tomatoes. Handpick and use pheromone traps.
Plump gray, brown, black, or green caterpillars that hide in soil by day. Collar plants and apply parasitic nematodes.
9. Tomato Pinworms
Small green caterpillars with brown spots that mine inside fruits. Remove infested tomatoes immediately.
10. Tomato Fruitworms
Resemble corn earworms. Feed on fruits and tunnel into stems. Remove damaged fruit promptly.
Now let’s go over these tomato caterpillars that are more common and give you a more in-depth review, including identification, damage, and organic solutions.
These large green caterpillars have white v-shaped markings and prominent horns on their posterior.
Both species can be found in all of the nearby 48 states in the US, following a large portion of southern Canada and extending southward into Central and South America.
They rapidly strip plants and damage fruits. These jumbo-sized green larvae can reach 4-5 inches long when fully grown!
Look for these features to identify tomato and tobacco hornworms:
- Large size, up to 4-5 inches long when mature
- Bright green color with white v-shaped markings along the sides
- Prominent horn or spine on their posterior
- Smooth skin with no hairs
- Chewed or stripped plant foliage with fecal pellets below
- Tomato hornworms have v-markings that point outward and white diagonal lines.
- For tobacco hornworms, the v’s point is inward, and lines run lengthwise.
But both species cause the same damage. Inspect the undersides of leaves carefully as the green camouflaged larvae blend in well.
Hornworms use their big mandibles to devour and chew tomato foliage, leaving behind only the leaf veins. Heavy feeding leads to severe defoliation, which stresses the plant. Entire tomato seedlings or plants can be eaten or killed by these large caterpillars.
Besides foliage, Hornworms also attack the tomato fruits, chewing large holes into ripening tomatoes. This allows rotting life forms to enter and ruin the tomatoes.
Just 1-2 hornworms can cause devastation to tomato plants.
- Handpick caterpillars – Check under leaves and pick off hornworms and put them in soapy water. Inspect daily.
- Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) spray – This natural bacteria kills caterpillars when ingested but is safe for people and bees. Reapply after rain.
- Use row covers – Cover plants with fine mesh fabric to exclude hornworm moths. Remove covers when tomatoes start setting fruit.
- Neem oil – The neem tree extract deters feeding and interferes with larvae growth when sprayed directly on caterpillars.
- Natural predators – Attract parasitic wasps and braconid flies, which lay eggs in hornworms. Avoid insecticides.
By diligently scouting for hornworms and taking action at the first signs of damage, you can protect your tomato crop from being devoured. Handpicking is the safest and most effective organic method.
For heavy infestations, Bt and neem oil can control hornworms without harming beneficial insects.
The cabbage looper (Trichoplusia ni) is a common pest in the cabbage family that also feeds heavily on tomato plants. These light green caterpillars have faint white lines along their back and grow to about 1 inch long.
As the name implies, they move in a characteristic “looping” motion.
The adult cabbage looper is a type of moth that migrates and can be found in many places across North America and Eurasia. You can spot them as far south as Florida and as far north as British Columbia.
- Pale green caterpillars with a slender, tapered body
- Thin white lines running along the length of the back and sides
- Move by arching back in a loop before stretching forward
- They have single black dots above their legs
- Chewed foliage with smooth-edged holes and black fecal dots
Young loopers start out so small they can be hard to spot. Watch for the appearance of shot holes in leaves as a clue to look closely for newly hatched loopers. Their green color camouflages them against the leaves.
While cabbage loopers do not directly attack tomato fruits, their leaf feeding can substantially impact plant health and productivity.
Cabbage looper larvae chew irregular holes in tomato foliage, sometimes removing whole leaflets. This gives leaves a ragged, worn-out appearance.
Heavy feeding weakens the plant and exposes fruits to sunscald. Defoliation during flowering and fruit set also leads to reduced yields. Fruits may ripen unevenly or fail to reach full size when tomato plants are under looper attack.
- Use row covers – Installing fine mesh fabric row covers over plants excludes the adult moths from laying eggs.
- Handpick loopers – Pluck green loopers off leaves and drop them into soapy water. Check the undersides of the leaves.
- Bacillus thuringiensis – This organic bacterial spray is very effective against young caterpillars but must be reapplied frequently.
- Spinosad – A natural insecticide derived from bacteria. Less harmful to beneficial than other chemical products.
- Neem oil – Discourages looper feeding and disrupts molting when sprayed directly on larvae.
- Tilled soil – Tilling around plants destroys cabbage looper pupae overwintering in the soil.
Start scouting for cabbage looper eggs on the undersides of leaves and take action at the first signs of pinholes. Handpicking and using row covers and Bt provides good control in home gardens.
Prevent heavy infestations by monitoring closely and managing populations while still small.
The velvety green imported cabbageworm (Pieris rapae) is the caterpillar of the common white cabbage butterfly. This species feeds not only on cabbage but other veggies like broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts as well as tomato plants.
You will find them alongside cabbage loopers and zebra caterpillars.
- Velvety green coloring with a faint yellow stripe running down its back
- Reaches around 1.5 inches long when fully grown
- Chewed foliage with large, ragged holes between veins
- Black fecal pellets often found on leaves
- Fluttering white butterflies around plants
Young caterpillars start out quite small. Watch for the first signs of damage in foliage to prompt close inspection for larvae. These pests camouflage remarkably well among green leaves and stems.
Much like other leaf-feeding caterpillars, the imported cabbageworm chews large, irregular holes in tomato leaves. These ragged holes increase in size as the larvae grow. Heavy feeding damage gives leaves a lace-like appearance.
Imported cabbage worms start feeding from the outer edge of the leaf and work inward toward the center. This skeletonizes the leaves and removes the photosynthetic factories the plant needs to stay vigorous. Some varieties of tomatoes are more susceptible than others.
Larvae may also spread bacterial and viral diseases as they move from plant to plant. High populations can quickly defoliate and weaken tomato plants, leaving them more vulnerable to disease.
- Row covers – Install fabric row covers over plants in spring to exclude cabbage butterflies.
- Handpick caterpillars – Pluck green worms off plants and drop them into soapy water. Check daily.
- Bacillus thuringiensis – Apply this natural Bt insecticide weekly, starting when plants are small. It must be eaten to be effective.
- Companion plants – Plant dill, parsley, and other small flowers to attract parasitic wasps that kill cabbage worms.
- Neem oil – The azadirachtin in neem oil acts as an antifeedant and growth regulator for larvae.
- Natural predators – Encourage beneficial wasps and flies that lay eggs in cabbage worms to control them naturally.
Closely monitor for white butterflies laying yellow eggs on plants in spring. Use row covers before pests arrive. Then employ Bt, neem, and do handpicking as soon as holes appear in leaves. Focus on prevention to avoid contaminated tomatoes at harvest.
Similar to other cabbage worms, the cross-striped cabbageworm (Evergestis rimosalis) is the green caterpillar of a common white moth. It is a frequent pest of brassica vegetables and tomatoes.
Their size is 0.39” to 0.55” long when they are adults, and they can be found in various colors, such as black, white, green, yellow and brown.
- Greenish-black caterpillar with faint white lines crossing its body
- Grows to around 1.5 inches long
- Shallow holes chewed in leaf margins and between veins
- Presence of small white moths around plants
- Black granular frass near chewed areas
Check the undersides of leaves when scouting for small larvae. They blend in well with the foliage. Target young caterpillars before extensive damage occurs. Cross-striped cabbage worms may be more active at night.
While the cross-striped cabbageworm doesn’t directly damage tomato fruits, its leaf feeding affects plants aggressively and their productivity. Larvae chew small holes in foliage that increase in size as caterpillars mature.
They tend to feed along the edges of tomato leaves but also make holes between the veins. Heavy feeding gives leaves a lace-like, skeletonized appearance. Entire seedlings or transplants can be consumed.
High populations stunt tomato plant growth, lower photosynthesis, and expose fruits to sunburn. Damage during flowering and fruit set leads to poor production of tomatoes. Slow ripening of fruits may also lead to failure in reaching full size.
- Reflective mulch – Aluminum-coated plastic mulch repels moths from laying eggs on plants.
- Row covers – Cover plants with fine mesh in early spring to exclude moths from laying eggs.
- Bacillus thuringiensis – This organic Bt treatment is very effective but must be applied regularly before extensive damage occurs.
- Neem oil – Deters feeding and disrupts larvae development when sprayed directly on young worms.
- Companion plants – Attract beneficial wasps by planting small flowering herbs and flowers.
- Handpick caterpillars – Removal by hand ensures larvae won’t mature to reproduce. Drop in soapy water.
Monitor for white moths and small holes chewed in leaves. Take action early before pests increase. Row covers and Bt offer the best protection against these sneaky leaf-damaging caterpillars.
5. Yellow-striped Armyworms
The yellow-striped armyworm (Spodoptera ornithogalli) is the larval stage of a common moth pest. They feed in groups on leaves at night and hide in the soil during the day.
These moths are often referred to as owlet moths due to the dark spot at the back of their bodies and an inverted V shape on their heads. They belong to the Noctuidae family, which is one of the largest families in the moth world.
They feed on various crops and grow up to 2 inches long.
Identifying Yellow-striped Armyworms
- Gray to black caterpillar with bright yellow lines along the body
- Grows up to 1.5 – 2 inches long
- Chews ragged holes in leaves between veins
- Greenish to black fecal pellets below the plant
- Burrows into the soil underneath plants during the day
Inspect plants closely for caterpillars in soil, clipped leaves, and scattered frass. Yellow stripes distinguish them from other armyworm pests. Target them while small in spring and summer.
Damage Caused by Yellow-striped Armyworms
These pests get their name from their ability to “march” through the garden in search of food. They quickly skeletonize tomato plant leaves by devouring all tissue between the veins. This damage reduces photosynthesis and stresses plants.
If existing foliage is depleted, armyworms may attack tender shoots, flowers, and fruits. Tunnels bored into tomatoes allow entry of rot organisms. Just a few armyworms can strip the leaves of an entire plant within days.
Organic Ways to Control Yellow-striped Armyworms
- Handpick caterpillars – Check under leaves and remove larvae by hand-dropping them into soapy water.
- Row covers – Installing fine fabric over plants in spring excludes moths from laying eggs on tomatoes.
- Tilled soil – Rototill around plants to destroy pupating larvae in the soil.
- Neem oil – Deters feeding and interferes with armyworm development when sprayed directly on young larvae.
- Spinosad – This organic insecticide derived from bacteria effectively controls caterpillars but must be applied early.
- Pheromone traps – Traps containing sex pheromones lure adult moths to monitor appearance.
Prevention is critical with quick-spreading armyworms. Employ handpicking, row covers, and soil tilling to prevent plant damage. Apply neem oil or spinosad at the very first signs of chewed leaves before pests multiply. Be alert for migrating fall armyworms.
The beet armyworm caterpillar (Spodoptera exigua) is in the early stage of a gray-brown nocturnal moth. They feed in clusters on the undersides of leaves when plants are small.
Besides tomatoes, they feed on plants like cabbage, broccoli, potatoes, and corn.
The moth of Beet armyworms is called the small mottled willow moth, and you will find their eggs on the leaves. They only grow up to only 1 inch long in size.
- Green to brown colored smooth-skinned caterpillar
- A row of tiny white dots along each side
- Darker brown or blackhead
- Feeds in groups on the underside of leaves
- Takes cover in soil cracks by day
Young larvae chew irregular holes in leaves only along veins at first. Search for the tiny white eggs in clusters on the undersides of leaves. Check lower leaves carefully where armyworms congregate.
This pest gets its name from its massive, damaging outbreaks. The small holes and trails chewed into leaves gradually increase in size as the armyworms grow. They may strip entire plants of foliage if not controlled.
Beet armyworms also chew holes in tomato fruits, allowing entry of bacteria that cause rot. Feeding damage to flowers and buds negatively affects fruit production. Managing them early is key to saving the tomato garden before they reproduce into huge populations.
- Handpick caterpillars – Crush small groups by hand or drop them into soapy water. Inspect under leaves routinely.
- Neem oil – The neem extract deters caterpillars from feeding on sprayed plants.
- Row covers – Fine fabric barriers prevent moths from laying eggs on plants.
- Remove eggs – Scrape off yellow egg masses found on the undersides of leaves.
- Beneficial insects – Promote natural predators like wasps that control beet armyworms.
- Spinosad – This organic insecticide stops caterpillar feeding quickly, but it must be applied early, or it won’t work.
Monitor closely and take quick action at the very first signs of leaf damage. Handpick groups of tiny larvae.
Apply neem oil or spinosad immediately according to label directions before infestations make a huge mess. Maintaining and controlling measures can help to prevent any future generations of Beet Armyworms.
The fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) is the caterpillar stage of a tropical moth that migrates north by season. These pests spread rapidly and damage many crops in summer and fall because they can not survive in freezing temperatures and migrate northward like beet armyworms.
Any fall armyworms can grow up to 1-1.5 inches long and lay over 2000 eggs which can cause a flood of infestation if you do not take any proper measurements.
- Brown to gray caterpillar with a broad stripe down its back
- Prominent inverted yellow or white “Y” shape on its head
- Additional yellow and brown lines along its sides
- Grows up to 1 – 1.5 inches long
- Feeding damage on leaves stems, and fruits
- Presence of frass near chewed plant parts
Inspect plants closely, especially the undersides of leaves where armyworms hide during the daytime. Look for signs of chewed foliage, trails in tomato fruits, and moist sawdust-like frass near damaged areas.
Target them while they are young, as they can destroy the whole garden if not taken care of.
Fall armyworms chew irregular holes in tomato foliage, severely damaging leaves, which reduces photosynthesis. They also bore into stems and fruit, leaving hollow trails. This allows fungi and bacteria to invade tomatoes, causing rots.
Entire crops can be quickly destroyed by larval feeding. Infestations are worse in hot, dry weather. Tunnels in plant stems also cause wilting. Managing fall armyworms as soon as damage appears is crucial to avoid the multiplication of Armyworms.
- Handpick larvae – Pluck armyworms off plants and drop them into soapy water. Check under leaves for hideouts.
- Row covers – Install fabric row covers over plants to exclude moths from laying eggs.
- Till the soil – Disturb 2-3 inches below the soil surface to kill pupae.
- Neem oil – Deters feeding and interferes with caterpillar molting when applied directly.
- Bt spray – Bacillus thuringiensis is effective against young fall armyworms. Reapply after rain.
- Pheromone traps – Lure adult moths into traps to monitor for activity.
Closely look out for damage and treat plants quickly at the first signs of chewed foliage or trails in fruits.
Handpicking and tilling offer organic control. Apply neem oil or Bt before larvae grow large and populations explode. Be careful with migrating fall armyworms.
Several moth species have caterpillars (cutworms) that curl up under the soil and emerge at night to feed. Look out for fat, smooth caterpillars that may be gray, brown, black, or green. They are seemed often up to 1 inch in size.
- Caterpillars up to 1 inch or 2.5 centimeters long curled up in soil near plants
- Plump, smooth bodies that may be gray, brown, black, or green
- Clipped-off seedlings or chewed stems at soil level
- Holes bored into tomatoes, leaves, and stems
- Plants wilting from chewing at the base
Inspect the soil around damaged plants for cutworms. Dig down 2-3 inches where they hide. Target them during their active spring feeding phase before populations spike. Destroy any found around trees, gardens, and fields.
Some of the most devastating damage by cutworms is entire tomato seedlings or transplants chewed off and killed at the soil line. Larger plants suffer wilted, severed stems and stalks.
These stealthy pests also chew holes in existing leaves, buds, blossoms, and fruit. Tomatoes damaged by cutworms are more prone to rot. Managing soil moisture and weeds helps minimize damage by these belowground pests.
- Cardboard collars – Make collars 2-3 inches high above and below soil around plants to block cutworms.
- Wood ash – Sprinkling ash around plants deters cutworms from crossing to feed on them.
- Parasitic nematodes – Applying nematodes that parasitize cutworm caterpillars provides biological control.
- Tilled soil – Rototill around plants to kill larvae and disrupt them.
- Handpick larvae – Dig around plants to remove cutworms by hand. Drop in soapy water.
- Monitor with traps – Place cutworm traps at first sight of damage to capture active larvae.
Protect young seedlings and transplants with cardboard collars pushed into the ground. Apply parasitic nematodes or dig manually for cutworms at early signs of stem and fruit damage.
Stop them quickly before populations explode.
The tomato pinworm (Keiferia lycopersicella) is a small caterpillar and one of the most damaging pests of tomato fruits. Unlike other species, tomato pinworms feed and develop inside the tomato itself.
- Tiny light green caterpillar with a black head
- Size reaches 0.5 inches long when mature
- Bore into and feed within tomatoes
- Winding brown trails inside the fruit
- Pinprick holes on the exterior
- Frass stuck on the outside surface
- Fruit rotting prematurely on the vine
Cut open suspect tomatoes to find caterpillars and brown excrement inside. Small moths with a bronze tint near plants are another sign of infestation. Inspect for entry holes filled with frass. Destroy any infested fruits immediately to stop them from spreading.
Tomato pinworms dig up and feed inside the tomato fruit, hollowing it out. Larvae enter through the flower or tiny holes chewed in the side. Their damage causes decay, internal rotting, and fruit loss.
If pinworms tunnel into the plant stem, it stunts the growth, and plants get wilt easily and produce fewer fruits. High populations can damage entire crops. Rots also develop in storage and transit. Prevention and immediate removal are essential with tomato pinworms.
- Remove infested fruit – Pick and discard affected tomatoes immediately before pests spread.
- Fine netting – Cover plants with fine mesh early in the season to exclude adult moths from laying eggs on tomatoes.
- Sanitation – Clean up old fruits and plant debris where moths pupate. Rotate crops.
- Beneficial insects – Attract predatory wasps that parasitize eggs and larvae. Avoid pesticides.
- Neem oil – Apply neem weekly once fruits start forming to deter egg-laying moths.
- Kaolin clay – This nontoxic mineral spray masks fruit’s scent so moths avoid plants.
Prevention is critical to managing tomato pinworms. Remove any infested fruits and use netting or kaolin clay sprays.
Neem oil deters moths from laying eggs that would enter developing tomatoes. Maintain and clean the fields to prevent pinworm infestation.
Very similar to corn earworms, the tomato fruitworm (Helicoverpa zea) is the young of the old world bollworm moth. This common caterpillar pest bores into and damages tomato fruits as well as other vegetables.
They have different types of color on their body, such as green, brown, gray, beige, cream, black, or even pink. They are also distinguished by their hairy bodies, which are around 1.5 -2 inches long.
- Olive green to brown caterpillar with white to yellow lines along the sides
- Darker head capsule with noticeable mandibles
- Grows to around 1.5 – 2 inches long
- Holes chewed into green tomatoes
- Tunnels inside fruits
- Damaged or wilted shoots
- Presence of adult moths
Check inside damaged tomatoes for larvae. Target young fruit worms when scouting plants before extensive tunneling. Monitor moth flights with pheromone traps. Destroy fallen-infested fruits so more larvae don’t emerge.
Tomato fruit worms chew entry holes into green tomatoes and then feed on the inside, ruining the developing fruits. This allows decaying organisms to invade tomatoes, leading to rot. Blossoms and tender shoots are also eaten.
Larvae tunneling into stalks and stems causes severe damage. Plants wilt easily enter from compromised vascular systems. Preventing fruit worm damage and managing moths is essential to protect the tomato crop.
- Remove fallen fruit – Pick up and discard infested fruits immediately to break their lifecycle.
- Handpick larvae – Pluck green loopers off plants and drop them into soapy water.
- Row covers – Cover plants early to prevent moths from reaching them.
- Pheromone traps – Monitor adult flights to time management options.
- Spinosad or Bt sprays – Controls young worms but directly spray into fruits and shoots.
- Neem oil – Deters moths from laying eggs and suppresses any young larvae.
Destroy any garden debris where fruit worms can take cover. Handpick caterpillars before they penetrate fruits. Use pheromones to monitor moth activity and employ covers, spinosad, and neem oil to protect developing tomatoes from becoming infested.
Now that we’ve covered identification and solutions for the most common caterpillars that attack tomato plants, here are some key tips to remember:
Carefully Monitor Plants
Inspect plants frequently, including under leaves, for eggs, larvae, damage, frass, and adult moths. Identify caterpillars early before they multiply. Destroy eggs when found.
Act Quickly at First Signs
Take action immediately at the very first signs of chewed foliage, faecal pellets, or sighting caterpillars. Handpick or apply Bt sprays when larvae are small to prevent mass damage.
Use Row Covers
Install fabric row covers over plants at the time of transplanting or early in the season to exclude moths from laying eggs on tomatoes.
Remove Infested Plant Parts
Pick and destroy any tomatoes, shoots, or leaves where caterpillars are feeding to prevent further damage. Starve out existing pests.
Use pheromone traps, blacklights, or hummingbird feeders to attract and trap adult moths so they don’t infest plants with eggs.
Apply Organic Sprays
When pests are established, use Bt, neem, spinosad, or kaolin clay for organic control of larvae. Coat fruits and shoots directly.
Promote Natural Predators
Attract parasitic wasps by planting small flowering plants. Conserve predators like spiders to allow natural control of caterpillars.
Caterpillars you can find on tomato plants can quickly defoliate and damage tomato plants, leading to reduced fruit loss if not properly controlled.
By following the information and steps mentioned above, you can learn to identify tomato caterpillars and utilize proven organic solutions at the first signs of infestation based on pest type and life stage.
Spotting pests early when populations are low and eradicating them is vital. Combined with manual removal, row covers, natural predators, and least-toxic sprays like Bt and neem oil for an integrated pest management method.
Pay close attention to tomato fruits and tender shoots before every plant falls victim to the infestation of caterpillars.
Implementing preventive measures and vigorous monitoring will allow you to enjoy tomato plants and bountiful harvests free of caterpillar worries. Don’t let these hungry pests eat up your tomato crop this season!