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.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 act. Of 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.