This tomato hornworm is being parasitized by beneficial wasps. Photo credit: Henry Crenshaw

Why would anyone allow dozens of wasps to thrive in their garden? Why would they let caterpillars keep moving through their pepper bushes? Don’t they know you can spray for that?

As Extension agents, one of the tenets we “preach” in gardening is the concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). This technique involves a series of insect control measures that begin with the “least toxic” method of control, using chemicals as a last resort. One of those least toxic measures is “biological control”, in which a natural predator or parasite is recognized and allowed to remove a pest insect naturally. It is important to be able to recognize some of the more common garden predators and parasites. Many times these insects look strange or dangerous, and they are mistaken for pests and killed.

One such beneficial insect to the home gardener is the braconid wasp (Cotesia congregatus). Most people shudder at the mention of wasps, but these tiny (1/8 inch long), mostly transparent wasps are of no danger to humans. Quite the opposite–they are an excellent addition to gardens, especially if you are growing tomatoes or peppers. One of the major pests to these favorite vegetables is the tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata), a fat green and white-striped caterpillar.

The beneficial wasp can control hornworms because females lay eggs under the caterpillar’s skin, after which the eggs hatch and larvae feed on the hornworm. After eating through the caterpillar, they form dozens of tiny white cocoons on the caterpillar’s skin. The tomato hornworm is rendered weak and near death, and the vegetable crop is saved.

If you happen to find a tomato hornworm covered in these small oval cocoons, consider yourself lucky. Let the process continue, allowing the new generation of beneficial wasps to hatch and continue their life cycle. They will control any future hornworms in your garden, and the whole process is fascinating to watch!

For questions on integrated pest management, beneficial insects, or growing peppers and tomatoes, call your local County Extension office.