How to Care for Hornworms: Life Cycle & Breeding

The art of keeping reptile and amphibian pets is taking the world by storm, with many people seeking ways to provide them with a reliable food supply. Hornworms are among the feeder insects that feed these insectivorous pets with nutritional benefits. 

Hornworms prefer temperatures of 82°F but can be bred at temperatures as low as 55°F. Being the larvae state of hummingbird moths, hornworms mostly feed in the larvae stage before pupating and turning into moths. Clean their enclosures every day to remove waste to keep them healthy.

Most worms are used as feeder insects for reptile and ampibian pets. Besides hornworms, for example, leopard geckos eat wax worms too. Knowing hw to care for the worms in question is important in obtaining the right nutrition for your pets.

Hornworms in the Hand

What are Hornworms?

Popularly used as feeder insects for pet amphibians and reptiles, hornworms are the caterpillars (larvae) of the Manduca genus hawk moths. The most common hornworms used as feeder insects are the tobacco hornworms, also known as Manduca sexta.

Naturally, hornworms appear pale green and have spots on their bodies similar to bird predators’ eyes. Also, they have a soft horn on their tail that grows about 3 to 4 inches long.

Hornworms’ color resembles the primary plants they feed on. They typically rely on nightshade family plants, including eggplant, tomatoes, tobacco, and peppers. This makes them common garden pests that are toxic to eat.

However, you can breed hornworms using a friendly diet for consumption. When bred in captivity, hornworms have a turquoise color that makes them look attractive to reptiles.

How to Care for Hornworms

Hornworms are typically moths at their larval stage. These moths belong to the family Sphingidae, also known as Hornworm, Sphinx, or hummingbird moths. Adult hornworms can attain lengths up to 5 inches. Therefore, if you are interested in learning about their metamorphosis process, you will require majorly feeding critters. 

First, ensure that you have enough food for your insects. You can purchase worms in pods with sufficient food, but it is advisable to have an additional food supply. You can even make your own hornworm food.

If you feel insecure about altering their food source, the foods may include unripe green tomatoes or Repashy Superhorn. 

Then, here are the appropriate maintenance actions for hornworms at various stages of their lifecycle:

The Pupae

After some time, your hornworm will cease feeding and start looking for a secure place to pupate. At this stage, you will require to provide them with some substrate to provide them with a suitable place to submerge in. You can use multiple materials as substrates. Forinstance, wood shavings, potting soil, and some layers of towel paper. 

After supplying the substrate, your hornworms will start diving into it and should not be disturbed for at least one week. Disturbing them increases the chances of killing freshly molted pupae. 

However, ensuring the substrate is damp since a very dry environment can make the wings grow stunted after the final stage of molting into adulthood (exclosion). Ensure you provide sufficient space for moths to develop their wings fully.

The Adult

Within a week to a month, pupae should turn into adult moths. This period will differ according to the conditions the larvae are exposed to. For the best results, you should maintain a temperature of 81°F for mature eggs to turn into adults within 30 days. If other conditions are maintained, they may delay the pupating process for 45 days.

After pupating into adult moths, you can conveniently rear them or feed them to your pet. Transfer the adult moth with fully developed and dry wings into a flight cage if you wish to breed them. They naturally feed like hummingbirds, so you can confidently supply them with a hummingbird diet or feeder.


Within 7-14 days of adulthood, male and female hornworms will start mating, and the females will lay eggs within 3 days. You can place a tomato plant in the cage for moths to lay eggs on. Alternatively, place mated female moths in brown paper bags. Amazingly, this will stimulate them to start laying eggs.

If the eggs are laid inside the brown paper, you can remove them from the bag or cut the eggs’ portions. Later, place them with some food to feed them after they emerge.

If you used a tomato plant, you could also remove the eggs or the part of the plant where they laid eggs and add artificial food for development.

How to Store Hornworms

Captively-bred hornworms are sold at local and online pet stores in 32 oz deci cups with a perforated cover or a mesh, some climbing lattice, and food to sustain them for up to 2 weeks. When storing these worms, you should place the cup facing lid-down to enhance the droppings removal process. 

If you may opt for a different container as housing for your hornworms, here is everything you will need:

  • A lid and a plastic tub
  • Ventilation: You can easily achieve this by cutting a small hole using hot glue. This will purpose like the fine mesh opening.
  • Climbers: Gutter guards are suitable for this role – glue or staple pieces of these climbers at the button of your tub.
  • Food: Arrange hornworm chow at the bottom of your tub that later acts as an enclosure.

Hornworms will grow best within 70-80°F. Otherwise, they will grow fast, making them unsuitable feeder insects to smaller amphibians and reptiles. If you opt to slow down their growth rate, maintain them within 55-65°F. Notably, never store hornworms in a fridge, as low temperatures will kill them!

How to Dispose of Hornworms

Hornworms can grow to enormous sizes that can be unsuitable for feeding your pets. Obviously, you will need to dispose of these insects as they are less valuable. However, you need to be careful about the method of disposing of them as they can be very dangerous when released into your garden.

Hornworms will feed on your valuable vegetables and plants causing a significant loss. Among the best ways to dispose of hornworms include the following:

1. Freezing

The most effective way to dispose of hornworms is to freeze them. If you have a freezer, simply place the worms in an airtight container and put them in the freezer. If you don’t have a freezer, you can freeze them by putting them in a plastic bag and sealing it shut.

Take care not to crush the worms during this process. Once frozen, dispose of them through your household garbage.

2. Handpicking

This is the most practical way of removing hornworms if there aren’t too many. Pick them off by hand and drop them into a bucket of soapy water or vegetable oil to kill them. Place the bucket in a sunny spot so they’ll be easy to find when you’re ready to dispose of them (or just step on them). The oil makes sure they don’t come back!

3. Use Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)

Bt is a naturally occurring bacteria that can kill most caterpillars (and some other insects) when ingested. It’s available as a spray or granulated powder that you sprinkle around the base of plants where hornworms might be feeding.

You can also buy Bt-containing tomato or tobacco plants bred explicitly for this purpose – check your local nursery for availability and pricing options.

How Long Do Hornworms Live?

The hornworm’s lifespan depends on its stage of development. The caterpillar has four stages of development: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. After the caterpillar reaches the pupa stage, it will remain dormant for about 10 days before emerging as an adult moth.

  • Eggs: The female hornworm lays about 100 eggs on the underside of leaves. These eggs develop into larvae within 2-3 days.
  • Larvae: The larval stage lasts 7 to 10 days, depending on environmental conditions. The larval stage is when the insect feeds on plants and overgrows in size. There are 5 instars (or molts) during this stage until they are ready to pupate (or shed their skin).
  • Pupae: Pupae spend about 10 days in their cocoons before emerging as adults. However, under unfavorable conditions, this can take up to 3 weeks.

Hornworms live for 2 to 3 weeks before turning into a moth. In that larva stage, you can feed them to many reptiles, amphibians and birds. Chameleons, for example, eat hornworms as well as many other worms.

Care for Hornworms Now!

The art of caring for and using hornworms as feeder insects is a fascinating and rewarding experience. It requires a simple approach and minimum resources. Thankfully, it later supplies enough food for your pet reptiles and amphibians. Get into the art and care for hornworms now!

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