While adult butterflies and moths are harmless to plants, drinking flower nectar for food if they eat at all, they are not so harmless in their former larval stage as caterpillars. Caterpillars eat leaves, stems and sometimes even the roots of plants, and they eat constantly. While most caterpillars in nature eat a wide variety of food plants, some are specific to certain plants, and when found in numbers can be damaging to crops. Infestations are unsightly and can lower property values.
Caterpillars, no matter the variety, share some features. They all have several body segments, three real legs and a set of false legs. To identify a certain type of caterpillar, look for field markings, which are identifying characteristics specific to one type of animal. When looking at caterpillars, field markings include color, size, head shape, where the legs and false legs are, and hairiness. A different way to identify caterpillars is to look at the damage caused to the plant itself, because different pests leave different forms of evidence.
Identifying Potato Tuberworms
Potato moths are very small brown moths that target a variety of vegetable plants. Potato moth caterpillars, also called the potato tuberworm, have white or cream colored bodies with dark red-brown heads. The first segment of the body is the same color as the head. They are about a one-half inch long and hairless. The head is always flat. If the damage to the plant includes chewed leaves, hollowed out stems, and black tunnels in the potato (Solanum tuberosum) tubers, the most likely suspect is the potato tuberworm.
Cutworm adults are nocturnal brown moths. These caterpillars are 1 to 2 inches long and brown to grey brown in color, sometimes striped and sometimes spotted and always hairless. The cutworm tends to curl up into a ball when disturbed. These ground dwellers are active at night. Typically they are only discovered by the damage they do to plants. Some cutworms feed on leaves, but most feed by cutting through the stems of seedlings at the soil level, causing the plants to fall over and die.
Identifying Cabbage Loopers
Adult cabbage loopers are grey-brown moths with a 1 1/2 inch wingspan. Loopers are so named because they move in a looping motion like inchworms. These are two inch long hairless green caterpillars that have three real legs on the front of the body and three false legs at the back of the body. This arrangement causes them to move along in loops, a style that leads some to confuse them with inchworms. Cabbage loopers are very common garden caterpillars that feed on leaves, leaving tattered, irregularly shaped holes between the leaf veins.
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