Thursday, August 19, 2010

"To Hell In A Horn Worm!" - Tomato Horn Worms

Tomato Horn Worms eating tomatoes. Cool Pippy Longstockings type socks!
These are Tomato Horn Worms at different ages. The one on the left is carrying the cocoons of a parasitic wasp.


Cocoons of the a small braconid wasp, Cotesia congregatus.
When I was growing up, when things were going badly (anyone who knows that situation would see a major redundancy here), my parents would say that things were "going to hell in a hand basket." Things usually were going badly, so I heard that frequently. That was one of those expressions about which I completely and totally understood the intent, but not the literal meaning. I still don't, though I've given it a lot of thought. "To hell in a hand basket?" Exactly what does that mean? This kind of ambiguity ate at me as a kid; I needed to know what it really meant. Otherwise, I felt like I was missing out on something. If I didn't crack the code, I was out on the secret meaning which could bode badly for me. I had learned early on the emotional codes my parents issued, the verbal and the nonverbal. It was imperative that I picked up on the subtleties of their moods in order to protect myself and preserve harmony between them and my siblings. If I missed a cue, all hell could break loose, hand basket or no.
     It turns out that if you Google the phrase,  "to hell in a hand basket," it doesn't literally mean anything. It's called an alliterative  locution - a figure of speech based on repeating sounds. A figure of speech introduces ambiguity between the figurative and the literal meaning. It may give a snappy, clear idea of the speaker's meaning, but not through an entirely coherent concept. I hate that. I want literalness and facts. I think that's why I love nature photography. "Just give me the facts, Mam, " as Jack Webb would have said. So, here are some facts without judgement nor ambiguity:
     Tomato Horn Worms are the larval part of the life cycle of the Hummingbird Sphinx Moth, about which I had  posted earlier. Like the hookah smoking caterpillar sitting atop the mushroom in Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, I waited for them to say something, but they did not. All they did was eat and eat and eat the tomato plants on which I found them. I took some home (you knew I would!) to observe and waited some more. As near as I could tell, they did not sleep nor otherwise rest (my caterpillar cam was on the fritz or I would have recorded twenty-four-seven behavior). All they did was continuously eat and poop. I photographed them doing that, but left it out of these photos. I try to be somewhat sensitive to my audience and that activity seemed to me to fall under the TOO MUCH INFORMATION actOf note, though is that you are more likely to see the poop before you see the caterpillar.
     The caterpillars grow to be an astounding five inches long! I could actually hear them munching which was a little disturbing. I made sure the lid was secure on their cage before I went to bed. I did touch them just to see what they felt like. The horn is sharp, but the body of the caterpillar is remarkably soft like your earlobe. Oh dear, was that TMI? I bet you reached up and touched your earlobe when you read that, though.   
     Eventually, the caterpillars will drop to the ground where they will pupate. If early enough in the season, the pupas will develop into the beautiful Sphinx moths buzzing around your petunias in the same summer. Or, they may stay underground and emerge in the spring.  Don't forget that when you see these enormous, voracious caterpillars. The Horn worm has not become an economic problem for commercial farmers, but can wipe out a home gardener's crops of tomatoes, eggplants and potatoes (all members of the solanum family) nearly overnight. Well camouflagged, they are difficult to see on the plants they are consuming until the damage has been done. They prefer the leaves, but will munch on the fruits if that's all they can get to. When a gardener awakes to find the tomatoes he's been waiting for all summer decimated, it would be appropriate for him to scream "Everything has gone to hell in a Horn Worm!" Now, that to me is an alliterative locution which makes total sense.
     Horn worms are preyed upon by birds and also a small, beneficial wasp. The wasp lays eggs on the caterpillars. The eggs hatch, then the larvae feed on the insides of the caterpillar, eventually forming a cocoon. That's the little white things in the photos which look like grains of rice. If you find these on Tomato Horn worms you should leave them in the garden so that they can help to organically control your infestation of Horn worms.
     I hope this was informative and not merely hideous. At least when next you hear me scream, "It's all gone to hell in a Horn worm!" you'll know just what I mean.


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10 comments:

  1. I picked 5 of those worms off my tomato plants the other day but not before they caused a bunch of damage, they're destructive buggers.

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  2. Ya, I am old enough to have heard that “things were going to hell in a hand basket”! Thank you for relaying (was going to say explaining but perhaps that is not the right phrase for this one!!) the sort of meaning of that saying. I think Tomato Horn worms are beautiful and have known about them for years as we had a family garden with lotsof tomato plants and every year at least one MONSTER worm. Mom would often put one in a jar for us to observe at a time when they seemed as big as us kids!! WOW!! What a giant.

    You brought back a lot of memories with those great pictures. Thanks for sharing. M

    PS. I do like your bird picture more tho!! J

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  3. Thank you, Marie. Mine are in a jar as I write on my kitchen counter.

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  4. I remember the Tomato Horn Worms! Once when I was very young I pointed one out to my Mom and and it plunged out at me. I'll never forget it.
    HG

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  5. This was both fascinating and very funny :-) I had no idea that those lovely Hummingbird moths that I like to photograph would produce tomato hornworms! I've heard that "the hell in a handbasket" all my life, too and never knew what it meant.

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  6. Hi Robin, Super post! I posted about the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth just the other day! Guess everyone is going to hell in a hornworm at this time of year (esp. if they grow tomatoes!). ~karen

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  7. Thanks loads, Mary and Karen! I'm thrilled you got such a charge out of this post! Holy Horn Worm, Batman! Robin

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  8. I had an infestation on my tomatoes a few years ago that devastated my yield - picked hundreds off of the plants. The bucket was full! Threw them in the middle of the road and created a green slime that was hazardous to drivers. I have no love for them, but solved the garden problem permanently by retiring from gardening. Now use the farmers' markets for tomatoes and let someone else worry about it.

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  9. Chris, probably a very good choice, the Farmer's Market. I have my caterpillars in a big container waiting for them to pupate, hopefully. Then, we'll hear Paul Harvey proclaiming, "And now, for the rest of the story......"

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  10. see this moving into the gourmet realm.....srb

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