The fuzzy cabbage worm is the ever-hungry larva of the cabbage butterfly. These green caterpillars eat broccoli (Brasisica oleracea var. italica), kale (Brassica oleracea var. acephla), cauliflower (Brassica oleracea var. botrytis) and other brassica family members, as well as cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. capitata). They not only eat the leaves, but will also bore their way into the plants, leaving behind a trail of destruction and feces. They can be controlled with pesticides or with non-chemical methods.
Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt is a biological insecticide that will kill caterpillars, but not other insects. It is often considered to be the best pesticide for cabbage worms because it targets only specific pests; it won’t harm ladybugs, parasitic wasps, honeybees or other desirable garden residents. Bt works best when applied as early as possible in the year and has the greatest effect on very young cabbage worms.
It’s always best to use the least toxic pesticide that will provide good control of cabbage worms. If the application of Bacillus thuringiensis is not practical, such as later in the growing season when the caterpillars have grown or are digging into plants, you’ll need to try something else. Pyrethrin, derived from plant sources, or spinosad, made from special bacteria, can provide adequate control. These two natural insecticides are approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute for use on foods labeled as organic and cause minimal harm to humans and animals. However, they are lethal to beneficial insects.
Many conventional pesticides will kill cabbage worms, but they typically also kill all other insects that come into contact with them and may pollute nearby waterways. Pay careful attention to the label information and apply only as instructed. Never use more than the recommended amount. These products are sold for home use under a variety of trade names and may include a single pesticide or a combination of chemicals. Ingredients that work well against cabbage worms include esfenvalerate, lambda-cyhalothrin, acetamiprid, permethrin, carbaryl, endosulfan and malathion.
To control cabbage worms without chemicals, put row covers over your plants early in the spring, before the cabbage butterflies have taken wing. The covers prevent the adults from reaching your plants to lay eggs on them, which prevents any cabbage worms from hatching out onto your plants. If you spot cabbage worms or other pests, pick them off by hand and drop them into a bucket of soapy water to drown. Remove weeds that provide hiding places and remove the plants or till under your entire garden at the end of the season to break the worm’s life cycle.
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