Saturday, September 12, 2015

Mystery of the Chewed Up Pepper Plants Solved

Can you spot the culprit?

We've been noticing that our pepper plants in the raised flowerbed no longer have entire margins.  They've been 'redecorated' by some unseen agent for the past several weeks.  Now, many of them have margins that are beginning to look more like those of holly plants :). 

Up until now, we have only been able to guess who's behind this baroque design.  While we were harvesting some nearby onions for dinner, we finally spotted the culprit.  Can you see it in the picture above?

How about in the picture below?

Here he is!

He's huge! One of the biggest caterpillars we've seen in Las Vegas.  He's green with diagonal white stripes across his sides and a reddish 'horn' on the tail end.  What is he?  We compared him to pictures from several websites and found a 'mug shot' that fits him pretty well.....

This Tomato Hornworm picture looks a lot like our new friend

On the 'Green Caterpillar Identification' page at this link Green Caterpillar Identification, we found the above picture that looks very much like our little guy.  We think he's a Tomato Hornworm or Manduca quinquemaculata. 

An article from the University of Minnesota Extension Service found here: Tomato Hornworms says that they only eat plants related to nightshade (the Solanaceae family), so that explains why this guy is sticking to our pepper plants and not bothering the squash nor the corn. 
They say that common weeds such as jimsonweed and horsenettle are also in the Solanceae family and that the best way to reduce the chance of getting Tomato Hornworms is to pull such weeds in your garden. 

we put him back in the garden, he may form a cocoon and turn into one of these......

Our caterpillar could turn into a Hummingbird Hawk Moth!
Live-Jar for the caterpillar
For now, he'll be educating Joani's students in his little jar we've set up for him.  Maybe he'll turn into a Hummingbird Hawk Moth for them.  We took a Mason jar and replaced the sealing disk with a rough woven cloth.  To keep him from drying out, we drip water on the cloth.  He'll have plenty of pepper leaves to live on as he seems to be the only surviving one in the bed and has left most of the pepper plants standing so far.  There are also sticks in the jar so that he can climb up and make his cocoon on the cloth. 

Update from original posting:  I learned from Holly, a member of Gardening Blogs, Videos and Websites community on G+ that we need to add 3-4 inches of potting medium to the jar if we want him to pupate. She says that hornworms actually put their cocoon in the ground rather than hanging it from a branch.  We missed that detail in the research we did.  We so love to learn new things! Please, feel free to comment on our blog so we can share, not only what we know, but what others have found out as well. 

 So the next time we see a caterpillar like this, we'll think twice about just smashing it.  Hummingbird Hawk Moths are good pollinators and will pollinate the same flowers that true hummingbirds do.  Other than redecorating the leaves on your tomatoes and peppers, they are actually beneficial.  We might 'thin them out' a bit if we start getting a bunch of them as we don't want them to annihilate our garden, but we do want some of the moths around to pollinate our salvia, butterfly bush, jasmine etc.