When Not to Kill a Hornworm

Hornworm on a pepper plant leaf

 

Tomato Hornworms are really big green caterpillars that can munch through and devastate your vegetable  garden. Giant brown moths lay pearl-like eggs on your tomato, pepper, or eggplant,  from which the big green monsters will hatch and start to eat voraciously. The juicy grass-green caterpillars can strip a plant overnight and then start demolishing the fruit.

Tomato hornworm on tomato plant

Frass & Defoliation

Most of the time I spot the signs of a hornworm before I see the actual caterpillar. The first things you will notice about a hornworms presence is denuded branches and fruits with huge sections eaten out of them. Hornworms love to eat foliage and since they are such large caterpillars, they have a big appetite which means they poop alot. Another sign is bits of frass (droppings) on the lower leaves or on the ground which are black.

Getting Rid of Hornworms

Handpicking is the best way to get rid of these nasty green monsters, but I avoid touching them. With repulsive juicy caterpillars, gloves are the best option as the caterpillars usually have a death grip on the foliage and they are difficult to pick off. Once free, I stomp on these gross pests. Or feed them to the chickens for a juicy treat!

Beneficials

Beneficials are just that: Insects that are doing their job and preying on other harmful insects that makes your job a bit easier. For example, preying mantis’s will hunt and devour lots of insects that will hurt your ornamentals and vegetables. Leave them alone to do their job!

 

So if you spot these little white worms sprouting out of the hormworm caterpillar, you do nothing as nature has taken care of it for you. These soft white growths are actually the cocoons of a special parasitoid wasp a species of braconid wasp. The adult female wasp uses her ovipositor to lay eggs just under the skin of the unlucky hornworm. As the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the hornworm’s insides, eating the hornworm alive.

You can see a tiny wasp that just hatched out of a cocoon

Larvae chew their way through the host skin when they mature and make a cocoon. which hatches into a tiny wasp. The wasps are usually dark with four transparent wings and rarely over one-half inch long. Their size and the fact that there are over 15,000 species make them difficult to notice, much less identify. So these tiny wasps are doing you a favor and killing the hornworm caterpillar by using the body as a hatching ground for their young is kind of like ‘meals on wheels’!

This is the moth which lays the eggs on foliage that will hatch into hornworms-from Wikipedia

Each cocoon will hatch a new wasp which will lay eggs in more hornworms that are eating your veggie garden, so leave them alone!

 

See this fascinating video below to see the wasps hatching out of these cocoons.

Hedgehog Haven

An injured Hedgehog at St Tiggywinkles

On a recent trip to the UK, I visited St Tiggywinkles Animal Rescue near London to see the how the European Hedgehog is faring. Found across Western Europe into Scandinavia, reports from the last several years indicates that this native species is declining in much of the UK because of a variety of stressors.

St Tiggywinkles accepts all animals who need care, but the overwhelming majority are hedgehogs

Don’t confuse the native European species Erinaceus europaeus with the domesticated Hedgehog commonly found in pet stores here in the U.S. , a separate species. The European Hedgehog actually lives in tunnels and holes under hedgerows found throughout the UK. And they hibernate through the winter in a sheltered location.

The English Hedgerow Trust says, “Hedgerows are a fundamental part of the heritage of the British countryside, defining the nature of the landscape and providing a major shelter and food source for a huge variety of mammals, birds and insects. Hedgerows are effectively a vibrant ecosystem, a huge nature reserve in our small and (over) intensively farmed country.”

Hedgerows provide shelter for small mammals

Hedgerows are not commonly found in the U.S. like they are in Europe. Strips of bustling wildlife habitat for butterflies, birds, and bats, and many small mammals like mice, hedgehogs, and voles, they provide much needed shelter. Zigzagging across the English countryside composed of a variety of trees, vines, and shrubs, hedgerows can be a beehive of activity. A super habitat for wildlife, hedgerows help nature thrive in narrow strips through large fields, I would love to see more of these in the U.S. instead of fences. Providing sheltered routes along which wildlife can move freely across the countryside between fragmented woodlands, hedges also provide windbreaks and prevent soil erosion.

Formal hedgerow

Insectivores, Hedgehogs are very useful in keeping the grub and insect population down in UK gardens. Slugs are one of their favorite food, one reason I would love to have a family living on my property! Attracting Hedgehogs is easy;  encouraging wild areas and planting out native plant species. A source of fresh water like a pond, log/brush piles and  small houses will also help Hedgehogs to stick around and raise a family. Down in population by 30% in just ten years, the UK has established many rescue centers around the region to help with education and assisting distressed Hedgehogs.  And there are lots of Hedgehogs in trouble!

Small wooden houses are used by hedgehogs for shelter in the UK
Hedgehog houses are for sale everywhere in the UK

So Many Hazards

Covered in a coat of sharp pointy spines, the hedgehog will roll up into a ball when threatened by a predator.  Dogs and badgers are the main aggressors of hedgehogs. Smelly and grumpy, they are still appealing because of their snuffly little nose and beady eyes. Weighing up to 2 pounds, I was surprised how large they were, up to 10 inches long.  They are as big as a small dog!

The hedgehog rolls up into a ball when threatened

Many more hedgehogs are killed and maimed by cars which is the main reason that they are brought to the rescue center. Also, hedgehogs hide in compost or brush piles, so people are warned to check their compost before turning it with a pitchfork as it is easy to impale a hedgehog with the tines. Likewise with bonfires, people are warned to check the brush pile before lighting it so that they don’t end up with a roast hedgehog! Open drains are another pitfall and if a hedgehog is caught, the advice is take two pairs of pliers and grasp the spines with these and lift it out gently to safety. String, barbed wire, and wire used in gardens can also become tangled up with the spines and enmesh them so they eventually starve. Garden poisons are commonly found to be ingested by hedgehogs which will kill them quickly. Wood preservatives that are frequently used on fencing can kill a hedgehog as they like to lick the fencing.

A hedgehog apartment

 

An all too common result of car encounters usually blinds and maims Hedgehogs so that cannot be released back into the wild as they wouldn’t survive. Hedgehogs in captivity often display pacing mechanisms to deal with the stress of captivity.

Hedgehog Friendly

Roaming far and wide, over 20 acres a night, in search of mates, nesting sites, and food, Hedgehogs need access to cut through fences and garden boundaries that are artificially set by humans. People are cutting holes in fences and adding tunnels underneath to help the population. Access to water sources is important but pools without ramps to climb out of can become deathtraps. Invertebrates that Hedgehogs feast on likewise are plummeting, so food sources are drying up. But people are setting out pet food at night for the creatures. An estimated 30 million Hedgehogs were roaming the countryside in the 1950’s; less than 1 million are roaming today. One glimmer of hope is that the decline in numbers is leveling off, perhaps due to conservation/education efforts. Go to Hedgehog Street to see what efforts are being used to wage war on Hedgehog declines.

Hedgehogs eat snails and slugs which are a scourge to many a garden

Hedgehog rescue centers are located throughout the UK just like St Tiggywinkles which I visited. Caring for over 10,000 sick, injured and orphaned animals per year just at St Tiggywinkles, these wildlife care centers are at the forefront of conservation and education efforts to stem the decline of Hedgehog numbers.

A raven being cared for at Tiggywinkles

Tiggywinkles even has a parking lot in front for emergency lifegivers to get in quickly with their injured animals. Caring for not just Hedgehogs, but any wild animal in distress, they release any animals that are healthy back to the wild. Others who cannot make it stay at the center for life and are cared for.

The trauma parking at St Tiggywinkles