The Hornworm Story
And now walking at my side
you see that life goes with me
and that behind us is death.
–Pablo Neruda, “The Soldier’s Love”
Tomato plants extend on either side of me. Staked and trellised with twine, the plants rise almost to eye level. They are heavy with bright green, unripe fruit and dense with foliage profuse with a resinous fragrance that is undeniably theirs.
The Friday sun is blazing a path toward the center of the sky. It has been nearly four months since I became a seasonal apprentice on this farm and a full week since I started killing hornworms with my bare hands. My only aid: a simple pair of kitchen scissors and the companionship of six others who join me, from sun up to midday, to scour the two-hundred foot rows for hornworm survivors.
I slide the scissors into the belt-loop of my jeans and wipe the sweat from my face with the back of my shirtsleeve, now darkened with swipes of tomato resin. A trace of the resin gets into my eyes and burns a little. I squint. The tears come and mix with the salt of my sweat and the sorrow I’ve been suppressing for the past five days—five long days as Hornworm Exterminator.
Killing is not what I had in mind when I signed up for this organic farm apprenticeship; and I can’t help but feel a little more jaded and alone, out here, in these organic fields erupting with life, despite the presence of my fellow apprentices nearby, scattered like birds of prey, among the tomato rows. They look to have no qualms about it, yet I have hardly been able to stomach a meal since the killings started.
I begin to question their ethics, and mine, but to have these thoughts would compromise my sanity. I can’t make this an issue of ethics when it’s clearly one of basic survival. The hornworms are destroying the farmers’ livelihood. If they are not stopped, they will devour everything: the parts we can’t eat—stalk, stems, and leaves—and the part we can. I sigh and retrieve the scissors from my belt-loop holster.
For a moment I am reminded of Christopher, a young man I had previously met on a farm in Florida. He professed to be a raw foodist and, more specifically, a grazer. He had radical ideas that led him to eat most meals alone, huddled close to the earth. His mouth and teeth were often smeared with the stain of dandelion greens, purslane, and plantain (weeds easily found thriving on the property). For him, supporting organic farms and eating a vegetarian diet were only part of the solution.
“Millions of animals die every year on vegetable farms.” He referred to the groundhogs, rabbits, and other small creatures torn to pieces by heavy equipment. Preferring a diet of wild, edible plants, tree nuts and fruits, he shunned almost anything mass-produced.
The path he proposed seemed difficult, even more so now, given my current circumstance of enduring by hand what no feat of engineering could accomplish. For had there been machinery to which we could have relegated this responsibility, the hornworms would have been long dead (without fuss or fanfare); and I could’ve gotten on with my life, reaping the benefits of a simple harvest.
As fate would have it, this was not the case, which explains why I am here, walking the two-hundred foot tomato rows, seeking out hornworms, and slicing them in two.
We first discovered the tomato hornworms, or rather their frass, among the grape, cherry, and plum varieties growing in the greenhouse. As the name might suggest, it is not uncommon to find hornworms noshing away at one’s tomato crop. While the size of their feces was quite extraordinary for an insect, comparable to that of a mouse or other small rodent, the tomato hornworm’s size, at this nascent stage, was negligible, well-suited to the diminutive name “worm.”
But the tomato hornworm, Manduca quinquemaculata, soon grows to become one of the largest caterpillars to grace your garden, or in my case, farm. In its larval stage, which I became intimately familiar with during the course of this week, Manduca quinquemaculata has a captivating chartreuse color with symmetrical white stripes veering out from the center of its back. It is called hornworm because of the reddish “horn” projecting from its rear.
One of the tomato hornworm’s most amazing predators is a specific species of parasitic wasp: the Braconid. This wasp implants its eggs just under the surface of the hornworm’s latex-like skin. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the hornworm, weakening it, but not yet killing it.
Eventually, the young Cotesia congregata eat their way to the surface, where they pupate, spinning miniscule cocoons that look like puffed rice pinned along the back and sides of the hornworm’s dejected body. By the time the wasp has emerged, the hornworm is dead.
But this isn’t what happened this year. Prevented from leaving their hives because of the constant rain, the Braconid wasps weren’t able to parasitize the hornworms with their little white eggs, and the hornworms multiplied. By the time we found them in the fields, they were enormous.
Like this one here.
See how it clings to the armpit of this tomato plant, where the stem meets the branch. Despite being three inches long and as fat as my thumb, the hornworm is nearly invisible. It is a master of camouflage.
I open the scissors near the caterpillar’s mid-section, and they groan with overuse, debris, and yesterday’s hardened guts. I poke the hornworm with the tip of one of the blades, and it keeps right on eating as if oblivious to me and my dull weapon. Others might interpret it as defiance.
Though I no longer whimper and complain when I finally make the cut, I still grapple with this experience. Do I have a personal responsibility to these hornworms, for which death would not be so near were it not for my scissors? Why could I not be more like one of the other apprentices, for whom this was not merely an experience, but an adventure? Like the one who twisted the whole episode into a psychological experiment?
According to his field research, “There are three basic personality types of the hornworm.” He developed this theory over days of observation: prodding each hornworm with the tip of his scissors and mentally recording its response.
The first type would simply go on eating, not unlike the caterpillar I have here. The second type would freeze immediately or curl up as if to hide or protect itself. The third type would rise up off its branch and try to fend off the scissor attack by swaying from side-to-side and gnashing its awful, horizontal mouth. That type, with its will to fight, was the hardest one to kill. More than once, the gnashing continued well after the fateful slice.
Fortunately, this one here is docile. If it wasn’t such a threat to the farm, I probably would consider keeping it for a pet. It doesn’t feel too terrible to the touch, almost velvety; and even as I poke it, rub my finger over it, it shows me no regard. It just eats. Voracious little thing!
It just eats and eats and eats until it draws its last breath (if insects breathe), and I hold mine, quite confident my face, my scent, my everything, will be the last thing this creature knows.
As I slide my scissors under the worm-riddled leaf, the lower blade grazes the belly of the hornworm. It arcs up toward the sky, away from the plant, away from my scissors, yet its lower legs cleave, like suction cups, to the branch. In an expression of both repulsion and ecstasy, the hornworm seems to question me with every last curve of its being, like the final question in Robert Lowell’s “The Flaw”:
Dear Figure curving like a questionmark,
How will you hear my answer in the dark?
The blades of the scissors squeak together.
No matter how many times I do this, my response is always the same: in that instant, as the scissors close, so do my eyes.
When I open them again, I see life literally drained from the hornworm. Its insides are as green as that dangling tomato a few inches away, once poised on the cusp of ripening, now (partially eaten), rotting on the stem.
Seeds and pulp gush from the hornworm’s severed body in a sudden stream. I wonder if I will ever be able to eat another tomato again, but how could I not! To deny a homegrown, fresh-picked, organic, heirloom tomato would be uncivilized.
I return the scissors to their holster and begin to make my way to the end of the field, where Antonio, a farmhand from Guatemala, is waiting with the truck. I pile in the back with the others; someone joins Antonio up front.
On the way to the milk house, where we’ll prepare lunch, we pass Dave, the farm owner. He’s talking to Paul, a younger farmer, who lives a mile or so down the road.
“Turns out he might have a solution to our hornworm problem,” Dave gestures to Paul with his left elbow and chin, his thumb hooked through the belt-loop of his overalls.
I feel my heart flutter and catch my breath.
A little too light-heartedly, Paul says, “Bt.”
“What’s that?” one of the apprentices asks.
“Is it organic?” asks another.
Gradually, grief and anger begin to replace the sensation of relief.
“Bacillus thuringiensis. It’s a natural pesticide,” Dave answers.
“Yep. It’s pretty well proven to work on most caterpillars.” Paul hesitates, unsure if he should continue, but he does. “Spray it tonight and the hornworms should be good as gone by tomorrow.”
My emotions threaten the better part of me, but somehow I manage, “So, why didn’t we use it sooner?”
I glance at the other apprentices and remember how Dave said that everything he’d learned about farming, he learned from his mistakes.
Dave looks at us through glasses brimming with the glare of the sun. Despite his tousled gray hair and the gruff on his face, he stands with certainty: one hand on his hip and his fly, for once, zipped. “You make mistakes. You learn. Farming ain’t easy living.”
With that, Paul and Dave resume work on the tractor parked in front of the greenhouse and Antonio shifts the truck into gear. We lurch forward toward the milk house. As we pass the field, I wonder how many hornworms are still alive out there, gorging themselves on tomato leaves while the dead rot on stems only a few inches away. I wonder what the Braconid wasps will think when they finally venture out to lay their eggs and find no hornworm to lay them in.
Dana Killmeyer lives in Las Vegas, where she is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is the author of a poetry collection, “Pendulums of Euphoria” (Six Gallery Press, 2009), and a novel, “Paradise or the Part that Dies” (Six Gallery Press, 2006). Dana is a certified yoga teacher and continues to study somatic movement.