Nature: Simultaneously Gross and Awesome

While picking tomatoes yesterday, we came across this:


It's the biggest, grossest caterpillar we've ever seen! A quick google search of "big caterpillar with white things" showed us right away that this was a tomato hornworm, which is a pretty big garden pest that can defoliate your tomatoes in just a day or two.

Ours doesn't seem to have done much more damage other than just eating the leaves of the branch it's currently on, and we couldn't find any more (although, according to the internet, they are notoriously hard to spot — they are pretty much the exact same color as the tomato leaves, for one thing). Kirk was about to pick it off the plant when I read a little further to find out what the white things are ...

Parasitic Braconidae wasp larvae.

So it turns out that those white things are miniature cocoons for wasp larvae. The eggs are laid when the wasp injects them into a hornworm, and as the larvae grow the EAT THEIR WAY OUT OF THE HORNWORM AND FLY AWAY, killing the hornworm and going to find more of them to lay eggs into.

Ew.

But cool, too. It's a natural control of the hornworm, and we read that we should leave this goner on the plant so the wasps can hatch and go get any more hornworms that might be lurking about.

The other thing we should do is till the soil in the tomato beds after the season, because hornworms overwinter in the soil before turning into gigantic hawk moths (which I think I noticed on our window one morning). They are so big that tilling should dig them up and we can pick them out and get rid of them so they don't hatch in the spring. Again, kind of gross, but also weirdly fascinating.

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