Sunday, July 15, 2007

Horned worms and walking the plank

I cannot imagine a good reason for tomato hornworms to exist.

They do a tremendous amount of damage. They are pretty gross to top it off.

Maybe if you were six or seven years old and wanted to hear girls scream a lot, they might be useful.

My wife, who is a few decades older than six, still hates tobacco worms as we call them. Whenever she finds one, I have to dispatch it.

They are even nastier when they are covered with the little white cocoons of a braconid wasp. However, the wasps have basically eaten the hornworm alive and it left alone will hatch and create more wasps to eat more hornworms.  

For a long time I thought white things were hornworm eggs but I was wrong so now I protect the hornworms with the cocoons.  The hornworm at that stage is already dead. This is from OSU.

Tiny wasps also help to manage this pest by laying eggs inside the caterpillar's body. A special type of braconid wasp inserts dozens of eggs into the caterpillar. Each egg hatches into a wasp larva, which then feeds on nonessential organs and tissue inside the caterpillar's body. The caterpillar starts to slow down as this happens, eventually ceasing to feed or move. Its body turns from bright green to greenish-brown, but the caterpillar is still alive.

Next, the wasp larvae chew through the caterpillar's skin to pupate. Each white object you see on the caterpillar's body is the cocoon of one of these wasps. A new generation of adult wasps will emerge from these cocoons to mate and lay eggs on the next crop of hornworms. To reduce the population of hornworms in your garden, leave the cocoon-carrying caterpillars alone. 

We have been pretty successful with our tomatoes this year. In fact they have done much better than last year's ugliest tomatoes ever.

We got our first tomato on July 5 here in the Cape Carteret on the NC coast.

We managed to hit that date in spite of a sneak attack by the Hornworms.

However, we have also been bothered by Fiddler Crabs eating the tomatoes as they get ripe.

Today when I went outside I found that the Hornworms had come after the tomatoes in force once again.

Instead of throwing them in the street and watching them explode on contact, I decided a more coastal punishment was in order.

I launched a small piece of tomato plant with the Horn Worm still attached into the salt water gut behind our home.

It was my version of making them walk the plank.

Only one of the four was able to get in position to suck in some air for a while. The others went quickly.

I have probably lost a dozen tomatoes to tomato monsters this year.

The devastation they have caused has been considerable. So far the score is Horned Worms 12, David 8.

I wonder if these worms make good Bluefish bait.