The Hungry Caterpillar and the Yuck Factor

The tips of our tomato plants were missing. Well, okay, some tips of some branches of two plants.

At first we blamed the usual suspects, deer. A little munching from them is only to be expected. It’s a normal hazard for any tomato plant foolish enough to poke its limbs through the fence and wave them temptingly to the outside world.

But last week, we started seeing signs of munching that was clearly an inside job. No deer could reach that far inside the fence. Besides, it was a different MO. Deer browse their way along, taking a nibble here and a bite there. This critter ate everything in its path. The tender tips of several branches were completely gone. Leaves had disappeared, leaving nothing but rows of stumpy stems on bare branches. Worst of all, the inside halves of several green tomatoes had been sheared off.

This was serious, but once we started looking closely, it didn’t take long to find the culprits. Tomato worms. Big, fat, juicy green ones. Several inches long and as big around as my thumb. Yuck. I know, they’re really caterpillars, not worms. Still, yuck.

You wouldn’t think something that big would be hard to spot, but their green color is a perfect match for their surroundings. It’s amazing how much a fat green caterpillar can resemble a delicate tomato leaf. Finding them was an exercise in the value of camouflage.

Removal was something else again. The standard advice is to “pick them off,” but I didn’t want to touch anything with such a high yuck factor. My solution was to take my kitchen scissors and snip off the branch that held the intruder. Then, with the caterpillar still methodically munching, I carried the whole thing across the yard and flung it into the brush pile. (And yes, I washed the scissors.)

I know, in the interests of protecting the tomato crop, I should have squashed them. Or snipped them in half with the scissors. But I just couldn’t; they were way too juicy.

I have wondered, now and then, if an aversion to snakes and other creepy-crawly critters could be something we’re born with. An instinct, even, meant to protect us from things that might be poisonous. It would be such a good excuse for my extreme unwillingness to touch something like a tomato worm.

But I’m not sure that’s a valid theory. As evidence, there’s a family story about one of my cousins. When she was nine months old or so, not walking yet but able to do a lot of exploring on all fours, she was outside in the yard. Her mother saw her come crawling down the sidewalk, grinning. Well, probably grinning. It was hard to tell, because she was grinning around something clutched in her mouth—a fat, green, juicy tomato worm.

No yuck factor there, apparently. At least not that she was born with. So it must be something we learn. I bet, by the time her mother got the caterpillar out of her mouth, she had learned it very well.

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Categories: Wild Things | Tags: | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “The Hungry Caterpillar and the Yuck Factor

  1. Frank

    Shoulda sprinked some Sevin on the tomatoes. I remember that we put a tomato worm in a jar with some tomato leaves and watched it grow into a great big rather pretty moth. Funny how a pretty creature can turn into something that repulsive. I don’t think I have a cousin that would consider having a worm in it’s mouth. Maybe boogers.

  2. Ginny

    I can tell you from esxperience that those tomato worms, when squashed, expell a LOT of green gooey stuff! If you like your shoes, don’t step on the things.

  3. I am pleased to report that the three we got rid of were apparently the only ones. We’re just starting to get ripe tomatoes by the pailful. I almost could bring myself to feel just the teeniest bit guilty over refusing to share this abundance with a few poor, hungry tomato worms. Almost.

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