Aliens Among Us?
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Some things that you see in horticulture just don’t seem natural…sometimes they almost seem like they are alien!
Have you ever grown tomatoes? If you have, I’m certain that you have come up against the tomato hornworm at some time or another. These are little green worms that have a horn on one end. They can be really difficult to find when they are smaller because they have perfect camouflage to blend in with the stems and leaves of the tomato. That is until they get those white things on them. What are those things? Are they eggs? Have you ever seen the movie series that began in the 1980’s, Alien? If you haven’t, I’ll spare you the gory details and just say that the alien grows inside the host (an endoparasitoid) until it is ready to unleash its fury.
Those white things are actually the pupae of a parasitic Braconid wasp, a real endoparasitoid, in the larval stage any way. These tiny wasps lay their eggs inside of the caterpillar. The eggs hatch into larvae that feed on the inside of the host keeping it alive but barely. The caterpillar will stop feeding and be lethargic during this period. The larvae will then emerge from the host and pupate on it. They emerge a few days later and start the process over again. If you are interested, there is an incredible time lapse recording of this on YouTube from Perdue Extension called Hornworm Meets Alien. Watch as the larvae emerges and spins their cocoon then later emerge as adults.
Another alien-like encounter that has been recurring more frequently this summer is the hammerhead worm. This type of flatworm is an alien in the sense that they are non-native. There are a couple of different types of these worms but the one that we come across the most, is named after it’s hammer-shaped appendage. These worms are from Southeast Asia, Australia, Africa, and South America. The worms were first documented in North Carolina dating back to the 1950’s. As such, the state is not tracking the worms nor is there an eradication program going on in the state for these worms.
These worms grab onto their prey, typically earthworms, snails, and/or slugs, with the hammer and hold it while they secrete a toxin that destroys the prey. The mouth parts then emerge from the middle of the body to suck in the nutrients of
the prey. That toxin is called tetrodotoxin. This is the same potent toxin produced by pufferfish. It is said that they are harmful to handle and that is true however, not as bad as you read online. Using gloves or not touching them at all is best, but if you do handle them make certain to wash your hands thoroughly. They are also known carriers of the rat lungworm, an internal parasite, however very rare.
Management techniques are slim because broad-spectrum pesticides will have off-target effects on several beneficial species such as earthworms in the lawn, garden, or ornamental beds. So what should you do if you find these worms in your area? Using a gloved hand, pick them up and put them into a bag of salt, bucket of soapy water, or simply freeze them. If not near plants, simply pouring a little salt on them will do the trick. The number one thing you don’t want to do is cut them up or smash them. Every piece that you form when cutting them will result in a new worm! There is a really cool time- lapse video on this on YouTube as well.
NC State Extension provides unbiased, research-based, University information to you the consumer or producer. If you have not visited your local Cooperative Extension Center, you may be pleasantly surprised by all of the information, workshops, and programming we offer! We will have a fall veggie class coming up on September 9 th (please register by calling the office) and veggie sale on Saturday September 16 th , call our office or look on the Beaufort County Master Gardeners’ Facebook page for more information. If you are interested in the Extension Master Gardener SM Volunteer (EMGV’s) program training, now is the time to call our office or visit the website (beaufort.ces.ncsu.edu) for more information. We will be having a training that will begin in the latter part of September. We will meet on Tuesdays at the Beaufort County Center from 9:00-12:00 beginning on Tuesday September 19th . If you are interested please send in your application!
If you are having an issue in your home garden or landscape, send your questions to Gene Fox, Consumer Horticulture Agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, please email Gene at firstname.lastname@example.org or call at (252)946-0111. Learn more on Facebook at the Blacklands Area Horticulture page or visit the Extension Office located at 155 Airport Road in Washington, NC!