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Pest: Caterpillars

Pest: Caterpillars

Caterpillars, those intriguing creatures that grace our gardens and fields, represent the larval stage of Lepidoptera, an insect order encompassing butterflies and moths. However, the term "caterpillar" isn't confined solely to them; sawfly larvae are also commonly referred to as caterpillars. Both lepidopteran and symphytan larvae share the characteristic eruciform body shape.

While most caterpillars are herbivorous, not all fall into this category. Approximately 1% are insectivorous, and some even resort to cannibalism. Others deviate from the norm by feeding on animal products. For instance, clothes moths have a penchant for wool, while horn moths target the hooves and horns of deceased ungulates.

Caterpillars, often characterized by their insatiable appetite, can become serious agricultural pests. Many moth species are better recognized in their caterpillar stage due to the havoc they wreak on fruits and agricultural produce, despite their inconspicuous adult forms. Conversely, certain caterpillar species hold value as sources of silk, culinary delicacies, or as agents for biological pest control.

First Sign: Chunks chewed right out of leaves. You may also see little piles of fecal material scattered about. Look closer and you'll detect worm-like larvae crawling slowly around, feeding. Corn Earworm, Cabbage Looper, Tomato Hornworm and other such pests have one thing in common - they're all the offspring of various moths and butterflies and are controlled similarly.

Distinguishing Characteristics: Lepidopteran caterpillars can be differentiated from sawfly larvae by several features, including the number of pairs of pro-legs (caterpillars have a maximum of 5 pairs), the number of stemmata (simple eyes), the presence of crochets on the prolegs (absent in sawflies), and the presence of an adfrontal suture on the front of the head in lepidopteran caterpillars.

Certain caterpillars from the Geometridae family, known as inchworms or loopers, have a distinctive way of moving, appearing to measure the earth. This peculiar locomotion results from the reduction of prolegs, leaving only a clasper on the terminal segment.

Defense Mechanisms: Caterpillars employ various defense strategies against predators. Some have markings and body parts that mimic poison or make them appear larger or threatening. Others are genuinely poisonous or distasteful. Some caterpillars have spines or growths that resemble plant parts, and some even look like bird droppings. Other caterpillars may even use silk lines to escape predators.

Caterpillars may have spiny bristles or urticating hairs that can irritate predators. Some acquire toxins from their host plants, rendering them unpalatable. Venomous caterpillars with urticating hairs exist, such as the South American silk moth genus Lonomia, whose venom is potent enough to cause hemorrhaging in humans.

Other types caterpillars form associations with ants for protection. The Lycaenid butterflies are notable for this behavior, communicating with their ant protectors through vibrations and chemical signals.

Feeding Behaviors: Caterpillars often employ feeding behaviors that keep them hidden from potential threats. Some live in silk galleries or roll leaves, while others mine between leaf surfaces or under leaves; indistinguishable from the veins in the leaves. They can be very small and grow quickly as they go unnoticed and munch on your plants.

Several types of caterpillar larvae are soil dwelling or spend a significant part of their life cycle in the soil. These soil-dwelling caterpillars often have unique adaptations that allow them to thrive in subterranean environments. Here are some examples of caterpillar species with soil-dwelling behavior:

  1. Cutworms (Noctuidae family): Cutworms are notorious soil-dwelling caterpillar pests that can cause damage to a variety of crops. They are named for their habit of cutting off young plants at or near ground level. Cutworm larvae hide in the soil during the day and emerge at night to feed.

    White Grubs (Scarabaeidae family): White grubs are the larvae of various beetle species, including Japanese beetles and June beetles. They are C-shaped and live in the soil, where they feed on the roots of grasses and other plants. White grubs can be significant lawn and turf pests.

    Armyworms (Noctuidae family): Armyworm caterpillars are known for their marching behavior when they move in groups. Some species of armyworms, like the fall armyworm, can burrow into the soil to pupate.

    Wireworms (Elateridae family): Wireworms are the larvae of click beetles. They are slender, wire-like insects that live in the soil and feed on plant roots and underground stems. Wireworms can be a concern for agricultural crops.

    Lawn Moth Caterpillars (Pyralidae family): Certain lawn moth caterpillars, such as the sod webworm and the bluegrass webworm, live in silk-lined tunnels in the soil. They feed on grass roots and can damage lawns.

    Corn Rootworm Larvae (Diabrotica spp.): Corn rootworm larvae are soil-dwelling pests that primarily target corn crops. They feed on corn roots and can cause significant damage to corn plants.

    Carrot Rust Fly Larvae (Psila rosae): The larvae of the carrot rust fly are soil-dwelling pests that feed on the roots of carrot and related plants. They burrow into the soil to pupate.

    Onion Maggot Larvae (Delia antiqua): Onion maggot larvae are soil-dwelling pests that infest onion and related crops. They tunnel into the soil to pupate after feeding on the roots of host plants.

These soil-dwelling caterpillars can be challenging to control because they are hidden from view. Integrated pest management (IPM) strategies often involve soil treatments, such as the application of entomopathogenic nematodes or insecticides, to target these pests during their subterranean life stages.

Most Effective Bio-Control:  Caterpillar Parasites 

Caterpillar Parasites (Trichogramma species) control over 200 species of Caterpillars, making them the most popular bio-control in the world. They're so tiny (1/50" from wingtip to wingtip) you probably won't even see them. They work by laying their eggs inside moth or butterfly eggs so that, instead of a new generation of Caterpillars, another Parasite generation hatches out and goes on to repeat the cycle.

Application: For best results, Parasites should be released when Pest Moths or their Caterpillars are first seen, and further releases continued weekly or bi-weekly until Caterpillars are no longer present. Use 5,000 - 25,000 per acre, depending on the level of infestation. Caterpillar Parasites come as eggs ready to hatch. 5,000 eggs glued to a small piece of cardboard. Placed around the garden, they'll hatch and breed from there.

Pairing with other Bio-Controls
In addition to parasitic wasps like Trichogramma species, there are several other biological control methods that can be employed to manage caterpillar pests and maintain a balanced ecosystem. These biological controls leverage natural predators, pathogens, or competitors to keep caterpillar populations in check.

Predatory Insects: Various predatory insects prey on caterpillars. Ladybugs (lady beetles), lacewings, and certain ground beetles are known to consume caterpillar larvae.

Predatory Nematodes: Entomopathogenic nematodes in the Steinernema genus are known to be effective predators of caterpillars, including those that dwell in the soil or have a soil phase in their life cycle. These nematodes have a symbiotic relationship with specific bacteria (in the Xenorhabdus genus) that help them infect and kill their host insects, including caterpillars.

Here's how this process works:

  1. Nematode Infection: Entomopathogenic nematodes in the Steinernema genus actively seek out their host insects, including soil-dwelling caterpillars. When they locate a suitable host, they enter the insect's body through natural openings, such as the mouth or anus, or by penetrating the cuticle.

    Bacterial Symbiosis: Inside the insect's body, the nematodes release their symbiotic bacteria (Xenorhabdus spp.). These bacteria play a crucial role in killing the host. They produce toxins and enzymes that break down the host's tissues, making them easier for the nematodes to consume.

    Death of the Host: As the bacteria multiply and the host's tissues break down, the insect eventually dies. The nematodes feed on the liquefied remains of the host.

    Nematode Reproduction: After feeding and reproducing inside the host, the nematodes develop into the next generation of infective juveniles. They exit the host's body to seek out new hosts in the soil.

Steinernema nematodes are valuable biological control agents for caterpillar pests that have a soil-dwelling phase in their life cycle. When applied to the soil, these nematodes can actively search for and infect caterpillars, helping to reduce caterpillar populations in an environmentally friendly manner. They are a useful component of integrated pest management (IPM) strategies for caterpillar control in agriculture, gardens, and landscapes.

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt): Bt is a natural bacterium-based insecticide approved for organic farming. It targets caterpillars by producing proteins toxic to them, causing paralysis and death. Bt-based insecticides are available in various formulations for caterpillar control.

Spinosad: Spinosad is a naturally derived insecticide effective against a wide range of caterpillar pests. It paralyzes and kills caterpillars through ingestion and contact. Spinosad is approved for organic farming and has low toxicity to non-target organisms.

Companion Planting: Planting certain herbs and flowers near susceptible crops can help deter or confuse caterpillar pests. For instance, basil planted near tomatoes can discourage tomato hornworms.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM): Implementing multiple biological controls and combining them with cultural practices, like crop rotation and polyculture, is essential for effective caterpillar management while minimizing harm to beneficial insects and the environment.

Biological controls offer a sustainable and environmentally friendly approach to caterpillar management. Select the most suitable method(s) based on the specific caterpillar species and your gardening or farming needs. Regular monitoring and integrated pest management practices contribute to successful caterpillar control without the need for chemical pesticides.

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