My husband calls me “Pigeon,” not as a term of endearment but in recognition of my visual search abilities. I’m good at spotting things and so are pigeons. To survive, a pigeon must be skilled at detecting the edible crumb or seed amid a background of inedible stuff. They are so adept at this that many years ago, Navy researchers trained them in search and rescue. The pigeons sat in an observation bubble aboard a helicopter and pecked a disc when they spotted a colorful speck in the vast sea. Read more about Project Sea Hunt, if you wish.
I haven’t been trained in search and rescue, but if you lose the back of your earring or need help finding a skulking bird or animal, I’m your pigeon. This skill came in handy during field work, when sneaking up on things was my job. My powers have been stretched to the limit lately, however. Something is chewing my tomato plants.
The nerve! The tomato plants have been so prolific, and I was determined to stop this munchery. Brace yourself now as I reveal the culprit.
The tomato hornworm. They can be five inches long! Let’s say it together: YUCK!
The problem is they are very hard to see. They crawl down into the dense part of the plant during the day, then come out and eat the tender bits at night. I’d search and search and never find any. Their crypticity was defeating even this pigeon.
Then I saw one that looked like this.
A little research told me this hornworm had been parasitized. Yay! Meet my new BFF, the braconid wasp.
They lay their eggs on hornworms, paralyzing them. If you are hornworm hunting and see one with white eggs on it, leave it be. Help, in the form of more wasps, is on the way. Birds are also avid hornworm hunters, so anything you can do to attract birds will help keep your garden free of these nasties.
Of course, the wasps and birds can’t find all the hornworms or I wouldn’t have a problem. I did a little more research and found help of a technical, rather than a biological, nature: a hornworm detector, aka, a UV flashlight! I trembled with excitement when it arrived in the mail. As soon as it was dark enough, I went hunting. It worked! I found six hornworms the first night, two the next and only an occasional one since. Which is fantastic, because they really are gross.
If hornworms ever plague your garden, you know what to do. You’re welcome. And let this parable serves as a reminder that nature has the power to humble even our best talents.
Sonja Yoerg grew up in Stowe, Vermont where she financed her college education by waitressing at the Trapp Family Lodge. She earned a Ph.D. in biological psychology from the University of California, Berkeley and wrote a nonfiction book about animal intelligence, Clever as a Fox. Sonja is the author of four novels: House Broken, Middle of Somewhere, All the Best People, and the upcoming True Places. When she’s not traipsing around the world with her husband, Sonja can be found in her garden overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.