Tomato worm is a general term covering several types of caterpillars, the larval stage of various moths. They feed on a variety of plants, including tomatoes. Among them are the tomato horn worm, the cutworm and the tomato pinworm. These caterpillars do varying degrees of damage, and rarely threaten the life of the plant if the plant is healthy. A number of chemicals are available to help control and kill the insects that are using your garden as a five-course meal.
Insecticidal soaps are a variety of mixtures that break down easily and quickly in the environment, that kill certain insects, and that are safe for use on plants, vegetables and fruits. Insecticidal soaps leave no residue; the liquid must come in contact with the tomato worm to work properly. Insecticidal soaps break down the protective, shell-like coating of the caterpillar, causing dehydration and death. Insecticidal soaps control various garden pests, including tomato worms, aphids, whiteflies, earwigs, scales and spider mites. However, like most other types of pesticides, insecticidal soaps do not discriminate, and will also kill beneficial insects such as praying mantis and ladybugs, which are your natural deterrent against pests; so they should be used with care.
Horticultural oil generally contains an ultra-refined petroleum-based or plant-derived oil and an emulsifiying agent. Insects covered with horticultural oil are smothered. Horticultural oils can be applied while the plant is dormant or when the plant is in full bloom in the spring or summer months. They help control scale, caterpillars, leaf hoppers, aphids, mites and some tomato worms. They can also kill desirable insects that naturally control pest populations. If not used properly, horticultural oil can cause serious damage to some plants.
Carbaryl is a broad-spectrum, synthetic insecticide used on outdoor plants, lawns and trees to help control various species of insects such as leafhoppers, caterpillars, ticks, cutworms, chiggers, psyllids, thrips and scale. It serves double duty as a stomach poison and contact pesticide, and it attacks the nervous system of the pest. Unfortunately, this insecticide is toxic not only to garden pests but also to humans when ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through eyes or skin. Carbaryl is considered extremely toxic to aquatic invertebrates and to many beneficial insects such as bees, parasitic wasps and ladybugs.
Bacillus thuringiensis is a microbial insecticide containing a bacterium that specifically targets various caterpillars. It’s generally safer than other insecticides. Bacillus thuringiensis is not harmful to people, pests or wildlife, and is essentially a stomach poison specific to caterpillars such as the hornworm. It requires ingestion to be effective. This microbial insecticide does not affect eggs, pupae or adults, and will only control older larvae. Once the caterpillar ingests the bacterium, it generally will die of starvation within 2 to 3 days.
No matter which chemical you choose, proper application is important to ensure the insecticide works properly and won’t damage the plant. Each type of chemical has its own set of directions that you should follow for best results. However, a general rule of thumb is to never apply insecticides when temperatures are below 40 degrees or above 90 degrees. When applying, thoroughly coat the entire plant, taking special consideration to spray the underside of leaves, which is where many pests hide.
Many times, chemicals are not the preferred method first-line method for controlling tomato worms, and should be used as a last resort. Instead, use cultural methods to control caterpillars infesting the plant. When plant matter falls to the ground, it provides both a living area and food source for pests and diseases. By keeping the ground under and near the plant clean, you will drastically reduce the possibility of pest infestation. Another option in a home garden if the infestation is not too great is to manually remove the caterpillars from the plant and toss them in a bucket filled with warm, soapy water. To protect your hands from potential irritation, wear work gloves when picking the insects off the plants. Beneficial insects can be used to control tomato worms without chemicals. For example, for the tomato fruitworm, introduce Trichogramma or Hyposoter parasites to the area. These are natural predators of this pest.
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