What Are Cutworms?

Cutworm or “cut worm” is the common name for the caterpillar of the adult of moths in the family of armyworms, loopers, and underwings. Adult cutworms are night-flying moths. They feed on nectar but not plants, whereas the larva damage young plants. Cutworms feed on plants by chewing. However, the cutworm does more damage to the plant by handling it than it does by actually feeding on it. In large numbers, cutworms have the potential to damage 75% of a crop. Cutworms can injure plants by:

-Consuming the tops of plants and marching on fields.

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-Cutting off young plants at or slightly above or below the soil line. They drop the severed plants into their burrows. Cut worms do not eat most of the plant. When they are ready to feed again, they start on a new plant.

-Climbing the stems of trees, shrubs, vines, and crops and eating the leaves, buds and fruit.

-Remaining in the soil and feeding on roots and underground parts of the plant.

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There are several different types of cutworms. These include: solitary surface, subterranean, army, and climbing. Solitary surface cut worms feed on plants by chewing. The bronzed, black, clay-backed, and dingy cut worms belong to this group. Subterranean cutworms remain underground and feed off roots of plants. Army cut worms occur in large numbers and they march through fields. Climbing cutworms like to climb the stems of trees. Variegated and spotted cut worms are just a few cutworms that belong to this group.

Some cutworms are dull while others may have a shiny appearance. Cutworms have stout, smooth, soft bodies and they vary in color from tan or brown to green, pink, gray or black. They may be solid in color or some may be striped or spotted. Adult cutworms, or the moth, is either gray, brown, black, or white.

The cutworm life cycle varies by species. A large number of cutworm species pass the winter as partially grown larvae. Others pass the winter as pupae or hibernating moths. Overwintering cutworms live in bark, under trash, in clumps of grass or in earthen cells in the soil. These types of cutworms begin feeding when the weather begins to warm up in spring. They remain hidden under debris or in the soil in the daytime and feed at night. Many cutworm species continue to feed through June, then pupate in the soil to emerge later as moths. The moths crawl from their brown pupal cases in the soil, then climb up through the soil, through a tunnel made by the burrowing larva. In some cases the tunnel becomes blocked and the moth cannot leave the soil. The weather, particularly rainfall, greatly affects the number of cut worms and its development.

Cutworm moths mate and lay eggs in late summer. The moths prefer to lay eggs in grassy or weedy areas. The eggs are usually deposited on plant stems or in the soil. One female cutworm moth may lay hundreds of eggs. The hatching larvae feed on plants and crops until the temperatures drop. When the temperature drops, the cut worm hides for the winter in a safe, dry place. In general, there is only one generation per year.

Cutworm Control

G.R. Nielsen of the University of Vermont Extension Center offers several cultural practices for cut worm control as well as s few home remedies.

-Plow and fallow fields in mid-late summer to prevent the laying of eggs.

– Plow in the fall to expose the larvae or deeply bury the pupae.

– Cultivate fields in the spring after vegetation has appeared and grown a few inches, then delay seeding to starve the cutworms.

– Plan rotations to avoid row or hill crops following a grassy sod. Plow sod fields in late summer or early fall the year before planting.

– Cultivate frequently to injure and expose hiding cutworms to predators.

– The construction of ditches and dusty furrows may interrupt armyworms.

– Place foil or paper wraps or cardboard collars around transplants; extend a few inches into the soil and several inches up the stem.

– Dig in the soil around damaged or adjacent plants in the row; find and destroy the cutworm.

– Plant a thick “trap crop” of sunflower, a favored host, around the perimeter of the garden; find and destroy attacking cutworms daily.

– Use a tanglefoot band on trees being attacked by climbing cutworms.

– Other suggested home remedies include catching and placing toads in the garden, wrapping onion stems around the stems of transplants, placing a ring of moist wood ashes around the plants, and placing a toothpick or 16d nail alongside each transplant stem. Chemical treatments are available as either homemade or commercial poison baits or as insecticide treatments directed to the soil surface or on and around the plants. Granular insecticide treatments, applied to protect the seed and developing seedlings from soil insects, are of little, if any, value in controlling cutworms.

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