What Kind Of Worms Eat Pepper Plants? (Look Out For These 5)


It is annoying to see worms feasting on your pepper plants after raising them from seed or seedling.  Unfortunately, you need to look out for a few different types of worms that eat pepper plants.

So, what kind of worms eat pepper plants?  Tomato hornworms, armyworms, cutworms, pepper maggots, and corn earworms are all worms that eat pepper plants.  They may feed on the leaves, stems, flowers, or fruit of the pepper plant.

Of course, you can tell the difference between these different types of worms by their appearance, where you find them, and how they behave.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at some of the common types of worms that eat pepper plants.  We’ll also get into exactly how you can prevent them from bothering your garden.

Let’s get going.

What Kind Of Worms Eat Pepper Plants?

The “worms” that eat pepper plants are really caterpillars (moth larvae).  These larvae are often brown or green, and they will eat the leaves and other parts of your pepper plants.

hornworm
Worms that eat pepper plants are often green, such as this hornworm.

Green worms will blend in with the leaves on pepper plants, making them hard to see.  Sometimes, a pepper plant might lose all its leaves in one night if there are enough worms feeding on it!

The appearance and behavior of worms will help you to tell them apart, so let’s take them one at a time.

Types Of Worms That Eat Pepper Plants

Here are some worms that eat pepper plants, along with their appearance and usual activities.

Hornworm (Tomato Hornworm or Tobacco Hornworm)

There are two distinct varieties of tomato hornworms:

  • tomato hornworms
  • tobacco hornworms

Both worms are bright green with long horns on the back side.  Both feed on peppers, but they may also target tomatoes, tobacco, and other nightshade plants such as eggplants and potatoes.

Tomato hornworms have chevron stripes and a black horn on the back of the body.  They are the larvae of the five-spotted hawkmoth.

tomato hornworm
Tomato hornworms feed on pepper plants and tomatoes.

For more information, check out this article on the five-spotted hawkmoth on Wikipedia.

You can also learn more in this article on tomato hornworms from the University of Minnesota Extension.

Tobacco hornworms have diagonal stripes and a red horn on the back of the body.  They are the larvae of the Carolina sphinx moth (also called the tobacco hawk moth).

For more information, check out this article on the Carolina sphinx moth on Wikipedia.

What Do Hornworms Eat?

Moths of both hornworm species lay eggs on the bottom side of pepper plant leaves in spring.  Later in the spring, the eggs hatch and larvae emerge.

pepper plant
Hornworms lay eggs on the bottom of pepper plant leaves.

The larvae eat the flesh of the leaves on the pepper plant, leaving only the leaf veins.  Any larvae that survive the season will spend the winter in cocoons within the soil.

The following spring, mature moths come out of the cocoons.  Then, they lay eggs on the leaves of new plants to begin the cycle anew.

Wasps parasitize hornworms by laying eggs on them.  After the wasp eggs hatch, they eat the hornworm from the inside out, later maturing into wasps.

hornworm wasp eggs larvae
This hornworm has wasp eggs on its back.

Armyworms

There are lots of different types of armyworms (they are the larval stage of armyworm moths).  Armyworms go after many crops, including pepper plants.

southern armyworm
Armyworms are the larval stage of armyworm moths.

Some types of armyworms are cannibals, meaning that they eat other worms of the same species.

Often, armyworm outbreaks pick up in early summer.  The most severe damage happens in late summer.

Two common types of armyworms that attack pepper plants are:

  • Beet Armyworms
  • Fall Armyworms

For more information, check out this article from Wikipedia on armyworms.

You can also learn more in this article on armyworms from the University of Illinois Extension.

Beet Armyworm

According to the North Carolina State University Extension, beet armyworms in the early stages are pale green with dark heads.  Older ones are darker green or almost black, with stripes on each side.

beet armyworm
Beet armyworms are light green in the early stages.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spodoptera_exigua.png

They have a black spot on each side of the body, right above the 2nd pair of legs from the head.

Beet armyworms cause damage to buds (young flowers) and young leaves on pepper plants.

Once mature, the moths can lay up to 600 eggs in a week!  There can be several generations of beet armyworms per year.

Fall Armyworm

According to the North Carolina State University Extension, fall armyworms are green, brown, or almost black.  They also have a wide black stripe on each side of the body, running from head to tail.

fall armyworm
Fall armyworms come in a variety of colors, including green, brown, or black.

You might also see an upside down “Y” on the head.  These worms can grow up to 1.5 inches long.

Female fall armyworms lay eggs on the undersides of leaves, much like beet armyworms.  These worms eat the leaves and fruit of pepper plants, along with other garden crops.

Cutworm

Cutworms come in many colors, including green, brown, gray, or yellow.  Cutworms are the larvae of moths, such as:

  • Turnip Moth
  • Large Yellow Underwing

Typically, a cutworm crawls through your garden to find a plant.  It then chews on leaves, buds, and stems.

cutworm
Cutworms curl up in a “C” shape when threatened.

The most damaging cutworm activity is an attack on the plant’s stem.  Given enough time, a cutworm will chew around the stem and eventually cut down the pepper plant, which will then fall over.

A fall plant (cut off at the stem close to the soil) is a sign of cutworm damage. Some cutworms feed on plants after cutting it down, but others move on to one or more additional plants.

In some cases, a single cutworm will move from plant to plant along an entire row of peppers, cutting down multiple plants in one day!

Cutworm moths lay eggs in organic material, such as compost or mulch.  For more information, check out this article on cutworms from Wikipedia.

You can also read this article on cutworms from the University of Minnesota Extension.

If you want to find ways to deal with the problem of cutworms, check out my article on how to get rid of cutworms.

Pepper Maggot

Pepper maggots are not really worms, but rather the larvae of flies.  According to the University of Massachusetts, the adult flies emerge in mid to late July.

Next, they lay eggs in pepper fruit for several weeks.  The eggs hatch into maggots, which are white without legs.

chili pepper plant
Pepper maggots tunnel inside pepper fruit, eating as they go.

Pepper maggots tunnel inside the fruit of pepper plants, where they feed.  After about 2 weeks, they reach a length of about ½ inch.

Then, they leave the pepper from the blossom end (bottom), leaving small holes.  The pepper fruit will sometimes decay or ripen early when pepper maggots are present.

Pepper maggots prefer cherry peppers over bell peppers, and they are attracted to bright colors.  Using bright yellow sticky cards can help to trap them.

Corn Earworm

According to the University of Maryland, corn earworms can grow up to 1.75 inches long.  They come in a variety of including yellow, green, brown, black, and pink.

corn earworm
Corn earworms prefer corn, but also eat peppers, tomatoes, and other plants.

They survive the winter in soil as far north as Maryland.  Adult moths can fly further north.

Corn earworms prefer their namesake corn.  However, they will also eat tomatoes and other plants, including peppers, potatoes, and many other crops.

These worms may feed on the leaves and stems of pepper plants.  The adults lay eggs on the lower leaves of the plants.

There are pheromone traps available to catch corn earworms moths.  You can learn about how to use pheromone traps in this article from Michigan State University.

What Part Of The Pepper Plant Do Worms Eat?

Some worms eat all parts of a pepper plant, including the leaves, stems, flowers, and fruit.  A large worm infestation on a pepper plant can cause defoliation (loss of most or all leaves) in one night!

pepper plant
Pepper worms may feed on the leaves, stems, flowers, or fruit of your plants.

Cutworms are able to destroy a plant by cutting it down at the stem.  Sometimes, cutworms chew around the stem near the soil line and keep on going to find another plant to cut down.

Some worms attack other nightshade plants, such as:

  • tomatoes
  • eggplants
  • potatoes

To avoid the spread of these pests, plant your peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and potatoes in different areas of the garden.

This tactic might is not guaranteed to stop worms from moving through your garden. However, it makes movement more difficult for them.

The longer they are out in the open between plants, the more chance that birds have to eat them!

How To Get Rid Of Pepper Worms

Luckily, there are plenty of methods you can use to get rid of pepper worms.  Some methods require more work than others, and some require help from other creatures.

Sprinkle Your Plants With Diatomaceous Earth

Diatomaceous earth comes in a white powder form.  It is often sold at garden centers.

It is harmless for humans to handle.  However, if you looked at it closely under a microscope, it would look “sharp”, and indeed it is.

Whenever insect pests move over soil or plants covered in diatomaceous earth, the sharp pieces cut holes in them.  Eventually, the insects succumb to their wounds or to dehydration.

diatomaceous earth
Diatomaceous earth will cut bugs open on contact.

Remember that diatomaceous earth will hurt both harmful and beneficial insects in your garden. That means it will kill insects that you might want in your garden, including bees and ladybugs.

If you use diatomaceous earth in your garden, you may hurt pollinators.  If you already pollinate by hand with an electric toothbrush or other methods, diatomaceous earth may be an option.

Before using diatomaceous earth, put on a mask. The fine powder will irritate your lungs if you breathe it in.

Spray Your Plants With Neem Oil

Neem oil has distinctive harsh odor. This odor repels common garden pests, such as:

  • aphids
  • snails
  • flies
  • worms

When using neem oil, the idea is to kill the worms or make the plant smell so unappealing that they will leave to find other food.

spray bottle head
Neem oil will repel insects, but don’t spray fruit with it.

Wear a mask when you use neem oil and avoid breathing it in.  If you get it on your hands, wash it off.

Avoid spraying any pepper plants that are already fruiting.

Order Some Ladybugs

The ladybug is one beneficial insect that should be welcome in your garden.  Ladybugs eat pests (such as aphids) and the eggs or larva (worms) of moths.

ladybug
Ladybugs eat aphids and the larva of other insects.

You can order ladybugs online, such as these ones from Planet Natural.  Then, release them into your garden.

Another option is to attract ladybugs to your garden.  Then, let them take care of insect pests after they arrive.

Let The Wasps Be

If there are wasps in your yard, think twice before you call pest control.  Wasps may parasitize worms with their eggs, sometimes laying dozens of eggs on a single moth larva.

wasp
Wasps often lay eggs on moth larva to parasitize them.

After the eggs hatch, they eat the worm from the inside. The newly hatched wasps will then produce more larvae to feed on other worms, thus repeating the cycle.

Make Birds Feel Welcome In Your Yard

Birds like to eat worms – it’s just what they do.  If you create an environment to attract birds in your yard, they will help you to fight worms.

For example, put out a birdbath.  You can turn it into a water feature with a solar powered water pump.

bird bath
Install a birdbath to attract birds to your yard.

Another option is to set out some bird seed and hang birdhouses to welcome the birds.  Hopefully, some new residents will move in to help get rid of insect pests.

Some birds may also eat from your plants, especially berries.  However, the tradeoff may be worthwhile if you have a severe worm infestation on your hands.

Till The Soil Before Planting

Some moth species survive winter under the soil, in a compost pile, or in mulch.  If you disturb their winter home, you will disrupt the life cycle of the moths.

You may want to avoid tilling the soil if you have lots of earthworms, since moving soil will disturb them as well

rototiller
Tilling the soil may disturb moth larva, but also earthworms.

Earthworms are beneficial soil organisms, since they improve the soil structure and break down organic matter into a form that plants can use.

For more information, check out my article on the cost of rototilling.

Practice Crop Rotation

Crop rotation is a good way to prevent worm infestations in your garden.  Rotate crops in alternating 2, 3, or 4 year patterns (the longer the better).

jalapeno pepper plant
Rotate pepper plants with other crops to avoid worm outbreaks.

Some worms attack members of the nightshade family, including peppers. So, avoid planting plants in the nightshade family in the same place every year.

You can learn more about good crops to rotate with tomatoes in my article here.

Pick Worms Off Of Your Pepper Plants By Hand

You can also just pick worms off of your pepper plants by hand to stop their feeding.  Some worms (for example, cutworms) feed nocturnally, so you might need to go out at night.

cutworm
You can always just pick worms off of your pepper plants by hand.

You can put the worms in soapy water or crush them to kill them.

Conclusion

The following table summarizes the types of worms we discussed in this article, along with what they look like.

Worm
Type
Appearance
Tomato
hornworm
green with
chevron stripes
& black horn
on back
Tobacco
hornworm
green with
diagonal
stripes & red
horn on back
Beet
armyworm
pale green
with dark
heads in the
early stage.
dark green
or black in
later stage,
with stripes
on each side
Fall
armyworm
green, brown,
or black, with a
wide black
stripe on each
side of body &
“Y” on head
Cutwormgreen, brown,
gray, or yellow,
they often curl
into a C shape
Pepper Maggotwhite, no legs,
less than 1/2
inch long
Corn Earwormyellow, green,
brown, black,
pink and up to
1.75 inches long
This table summarizes some worms that
eat pepper plants and their appearance.

Now you know about some common worms that eat pepper plants and how to identify them.  You also know how to prevent them from wrecking your garden.

You might also be interested in my article on organic pest control and my article on plant collars.

I hope you found this article helpful – if so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

If you want to read some of my most popular posts, check out the “Best of GreenUpSide” page here.  Enjoy!

~Jonathon

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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