My chickens wish that we had a garden. It is not that they are avid vegetable eaters, although they do enjoy the produce leftovers that they get from our kitchencompost. Nor is it that they are looking to get a greenthumb. It is the protein from the garden that they desire.

The big juicy caterpillars that are the pests of the plots are what those chickens are really longing for. I hear from my gardening friends that it has been a banner year for hornworms and my hens are jealous.

Hornworms, those giant green caterpillars that can be as big as five inches long, come in two major garden varieties — tobacco and tomato. Look at the horns — from which they get their name — and the striping to differentiate. Tobacco hornworms have a red horn on their tail and seven single white stripes on their body, while tomato hornworms have a blue/black horn and eight V-shaped white markings (easy to remember if you think of V-8 tomato juice).

Tobacco hornworms are actually more prevalent than tomato hornworms, even if they share some similarities. They both really, really like tomato plants, although they will also consume eggplants, peppers, tobacco, potatoes, and other nightshades — but only nightshade plants.  Researchers have noted that these caterpillars will starve before they consume a plant other than nightshades. 

They do not have to do without in most gardens. Hornworms are voracious and will eat their way through the leaves, stems, and fruit of your plants in notime. With all of this dining out, it is no wonder that they molt seven times in their lifetime.

If the hornworms are lucky enough to survive predation and go through all of their molts, they will go on to the next stage of their life. The caterpillars drop off of your garden plants and dig down into the soil a fewinches. Then they will metamorphose into a hard brown cocoon.

Now, the (garden) plot thickens. With the onset of winter, the ground hardens, but their rigid cocoon enables the creature to survive down in the dirt away from surface predators.  June and July bring new life: from the tomato hornworms come five-spotted hawk moths, and from the tobacco hornworms come Carolina sphinx moths, which emerge on a wing and a prayer.

If you cannot bear to share your garden harvest with these caterpillars or to give them the time and meal to develop into really cool large brown moths, you do have a few options to control them. All of which are pretty disturbing.

Hand picking to remove the green beasts is advised by some. To dispatch them one can cut them in half (gross), squish them (too juicy and messy), or drown them in a bucket of water(mean). Another option is to rototill the soil well before planting in order to destroy the overwinteringcocoons. One can of course use pesticides, but remember that whatever gets dumped on the plant or on the ground ends up in the food chain, and, presumably, you hope to eat the surviving tomatoes.

The best solution naturally comes from Mother Nature. Hornworm caterpillars are plagued by a natural enemy, a wasp that lays its eggs on theirbacks. These white eggs become white cocoons (visible to the eye) that contain larvae. This larva paralyzes the hornworms, and when they hatch, eats the caterpillars from the insideout. (I said it was the b est solution; I didn’t say it was the least gross.) If you see these paralyzed caterpillars on your plants, leave them be so that the wasps will hatch and destroy as many caterpillars as possible.

Incidentally, Charles Darwin also thought the eating the caterpillar from the inside trick was pretty gross, too, as well as disturbing. “He wrote to a friend (in 1860): “There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars...”

If you can’t stand the misery in the caterpillar world either, don’t forget my chickens. They are always in need of a protein fix and eat from the outside in.


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.