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What Do Caterpillars Eat? Damage to Your Garden

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What Do Caterpillars Eat? Damage to Your Garden

There are as many species of caterpillars as there are butterflies and moths. Foliage caterpillars feed on leaves while others will eat flowers and fruits.

A well-known green caterpillar is the Tomato Hornworm. Hornworms are blue-green in appearance with white stripes and a horn-like spine on their rear [1].

Hornworms eat a variety of vegetables and other plants. They will devour green tomatoes, cabbage, peppers, spinach, tobacco leaves, and more.

Their color helps them blend into leaves. As they feed, they leave behind dark green or black droppings.

Foliage-Feeding Caterpillars

What kind of leaves do caterpillars eat? Oak leaves, needles, and the foliage of many trees and shrubs. Cherry, apple, and willow are on the list of plants that they feed on.

Some will also devour other plant parts like the stem, flowers, and even seeds.

Leafrollers

The leaf roller caterpillar eats leaves, buds, and fruit of trees and ornamentals. They use silk to fold leaves together. Leaf rollers then use these shelters to feed in relative safety.

They are host-specific, meaning, they only go after the leaves of one kind of plant or tree. Leaf roller caterpillars can cause so much stress to the fruit tree it will either drop its fruit early or the fruit will have deformities.

The Mimosa Webworm is the one most people see on mimosa trees and honey locust trees.

Cutworms

Cutworms hide either underneath the soil of their host plant or in its dense crown during the day. Then, at night, they come out to feed on foliage, seedlings, and to bore into veggies.

These caterpillars are very dangerous to young plants as they will eat them all, while with mature vegetables, they make holes in the ends of the stems. These can lead to the vegetable dying from not getting nutrients from the main plant.

Cutworms prefer garden vegetables, but they have been known to go over ornamentals as well. The linked article highlights natural ways of getting rid of cutworms in the garden.

Borers

Borer caterpillars are a menace to trees of all kinds. It doesn’t matter if it’s a nut, fruit, flowering, or ornamental kind of tree.

The eggs are laid on the damaged areas of bark and when they hatch, the little ones bore into the tree where they will feed out of sight.

Some species tunnel around just beneath the root while others will go straight for the buds and shoots. There they will stay for two years before pupating and then crawling out as adults.

Peachtree borers are included in this group.

Food for Caterpillars

Besides everything, below is a general list of what caterpillars eat and drink, in your garden, and out of it.

  1. Flowers – it doesn’t matter what kind of flowers these are or what the main plant is. They will target the buds, seeds, and blooms. They also drink nectar.
  2. Vegetables – vegetables in the Nightshade (peppers, tomato plants, eggplants, etc.) and crucifers are popular caterpillar plants. They will also chew on vining plants as well as root vegetables.
  3. Fruits – apples, peach, plum, peppers, and many others. The tomato fruitworm caterpillar feeds on the tomato fruit.
  4. Grasses – grass includes all cereal crops like rye and oat as well as beans such as soybean. Cutworms do the most damage to these crops.
  5. Bark and Twigs – their diet also includes all manner of trees and shrubs.

Other Things They Feed On

Wax Moth Caterpillars can kill an entire beehive. They’ll also eat the skins of bees and chew on beeswax.

Additionally, some feed on animal waste such as owl pellets and feces in birds’ nests, as well as the skin of dead mice and birds.

Some also prey on each other. The dun-bar caterpillar is a leaf-eater but it will consume other moth caterpillars if it finds one, even another of its kind.

Types of Damage

How do you know you have caterpillars in your garden? Simple. You’ll most likely see the damage before you ever see the caterpillars.

  • Leaves will have gaping holes or the edges missing. Some plants will be missing entire leaves including the stems.
  • Fruits and vegetables will have holes bored into them or, they will have big sections eaten out of them. Small fruits might be missing entirely.
  • Trees will have webbing on their leaves or have “tents” made of silk in the crooks of their branches.
  • You may also notice poop beneath the host plants.

How To Stop Caterpillars From Eating My Plants?

Now that you know what they do, do you want them in your garden? Below are some ways to not only get rid of any you might already have but prevent them from showing up. 

Handpicking

The most natural and eco-friendly of all, this method requires a pair of gloves and a pail of soapy water.

Go out early in the morning, pluck them off your plants, and drop them into the pail. You can also knock them on the ground and squish them.

Gloves are recommended because some caterpillars have hairs that can cause skin irritation. This is the best natural way to get rid of caterpillars. 

Diatomaceous Earth (DE)

Another natural remedy. Placed around the base of your plants, diatomaceous earth will cut up the underside of any caterpillar that walks on it.

Sprinkle the powder on leaves, around plants, and on the pests themselves. You can also make a spray out of it. 

Garden Clean Up

The eggs of many butterflies and moths overwinter under leaf litter and other garden debris. Therefore, it’s best to clean these up and other garden debris.  Destroying weeds also helps.

Moreover, some natural predators eat caterpillars. For more tips on how to eliminate these critters from your garden, read 11 Natural Ways to Get Rid of Caterpillars on Plants.

Takeaway

Green caterpillars are pests, for all their cuteness. Plus, others such as the woolly bear caterpillar and the monarch caterpillar can cause damage too.

Unfortunately, it’s a choice between your garden and these critters. Therefore, knowing what they eat and how to spot them will go a long way in saving your garden.

Sasha Brown

Blogger and lover of all things natural.

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