Dealing with pests is an inevitable challenge for gardeners and farmers alike. Whether you’re growing pepper plants in your backyard or tending to a larger crop, the presence of insects can significantly impact the health and productivity of your plants.
Pests can vary widely, with different species prevailing over time, locations, and regions. While some pests may cause minor damage that can be easily managed, others have the potential to decimate your entire crop if left unchecked.
Read on to learn about some of the most common bugs that affect pepper plants, how to identify them, and how to address the problem. By arming yourself with knowledge and understanding, you can proactively protect your pepper plants and ensure a successful harvest.
Leaf miners are tiny larvae that feed on the inside of leaves, leaving distinctive light trails as they move. These pests cause damage to the leaves of pepper plants, leading to premature leaf drop. In cases of heavy infestation, the plant may lose a significant number of leaves, hindering its ability to carry out photosynthesis effectively.
Controlling the population of leaf miners is essential to protect the health of your pepper plants. Parasitic wasps, specifically the Diglyphus species, can help control leaf miner populations in a healthy ecosystem. These wasps act as beneficial insects by preying on leaf miners and helping to keep their population in check.
If you notice leaf miners on your pepper plants, you can physically remove them by squishing them with your hands. While this method can be adequate for small-scale infestations, it may not be practical for more extensive or widespread problems.
Aphids, small and soft-bodied insects, are a common nuisance for pepper plants. Typically, they congregate on the underside of leaves, stems, and new growth. There is an astounding variety of aphids, with thousands of species displaying diverse sizes, shapes, and colors. These pests feed by sucking out the nutrient-rich sap from the leaves, causing dark spots and potentially stunting the plant’s growth. In severe cases, if left uncontrolled, aphid infestations can even lead to the death of the plant.
Thrips, scientifically known as Thysanoptera, are soft-bodied insects that feed on plant sap. Measuring less than 1/8th of an inch in length, these pests have elongated bodies resembling a grain of rice. Thrips come in various colors, including yellow, brown, or black.
When infesting pepper plants, thrips primarily feed on buds and leaves. Their feeding activity results in leaves drying out and developing a scarred or silver-flecked appearance (University of Florida, n.d.). One telltale sign of thrips infestation is the presence of black specks of feces on the leaves
The damage caused by thrips can manifest in different ways, including leaf stippling, bleaching, curling or distortion, whitish waxy growth, or sticky honeydew.
It’s important to note that not all species of thrips are damaging to plants. However, when dealing with infestations that result in noticeable damage to pepper plants, prompt action is necessary to mitigate the negative impact.
Weevils are small, hard-bodied insects. These pests can pose a problem for pepper plants as they can cause bud and fruit drop, affecting the plant’s overall productivity.
One notable behavior of weevils is their habit of laying eggs inside the fruit. This can lead to further damage as the larvae develop within the fruit, potentially compromising its quality and viability.
Flea beetles are tiny, hard-bodied insects that resemble fleas in their size and hopping behavior. They can range in color, including black, brown, bronze, and blue. These pests can be a nuisance for pepper plants as they have a penchant for causing holes in the leaves. Despite their small size, flea beetles can inflict noticeable damage to the foliage of your plants.
One method of control is manual squishing, where you can physically remove and crush these beetles by hand. In my garden, I use garden huckleberries as a decoy plant. The flea beetles flock to the huckleberry plant and leave my other nightshades and brassicas alone.
Although minuscule in size—up to 1/50 inch long—Spider mites are often too tiny to be visible to the naked eye. These soft-bodied pests lay their eggs under the leaves of pepper plants, contributing to their stealthy nature.
Like aphids, spider mites feed on the nutrient-rich sap of the leaves, but unlike aphids, they leave behind a web-like substance on the plants. Spider mites can exhibit various colors, including red, brown, yellow, or green.
Unfortunately, when their presence becomes noticeable, significant damage has usually already occurred. Keep an eye out for yellow and brown spots on the plant as an indication of spider mite infestation. Ladybugs are natural predators of spider mites and can help control their population.
Cutworms are notorious pests that specifically target seedlings, posing a significant threat to the growth and survival of your pepper plants. These pests chew through the base of the plant, cutting it down and causing instant damage that can lead to the death of the entire plant.
Feeding primarily at night, cutworms can be particularly destructive during the early stages of plant growth. However, they tend to hide underground during the day, making them difficult to detect and remove.
If you observe cutworm activity in your garden, you may be able to manually remove them during the night. When disturbed, their characteristic behavior of curling into a tight ‘C’ shape can help identify and handle them.
Cutworms can exhibit color variations, with some being uniform and others being spotted or striped. Additionally, their appearance can range from dull to shiny (Hahn, 2019).
Tomato and tobacco hornworms
Hornworms are large caterpillars characterized by a distinctive protruding horn. Both tomato and tobacco hornworms pose a threat to pepper plants, as they may feed on them.
To differentiate between the two species, tobacco hornworms have seven diagonal stripes on each side of their bodies, while tomato hornworms display eight chevron-shaped stripes (Hornworms, 2013).
These voracious caterpillars have a vast appetite, consuming blossoms, leaves, and even fruit. If your pepper plants are infested with hornworms, you may notice large open scars on the fruit, indicating their feeding activity.
In the natural ecosystem, parasitic wasps play a crucial role as predators of hornworms. If you come across a hornworm covered in small white ovals, these are actually wasp cocoons. Allowing the wasps to emerge from the cocoons as they continue the cycle is beneficial and helps control the population of hornworms in your garden.
What to do about insects harming your pepper plants
When dealing with insects on your pepper plants, there are several approaches you can take to maintain a healthy balance in your garden ecosystem and effectively control pest populations. Here are some recommended strategies:
Embrace natural predators
All insects have natural predators, and encouraging beneficial insects in your garden can help control damaging pests. Limiting the use of pesticides, especially early in the season, can foster a healthier ecosystem where natural balances can occur. Beneficial insects like ladybugs and parasitic wasps are excellent allies in combating many garden pests.
For larger insects that are visible, you can manually remove them by hand. Squishing them or feeding them to chickens can help reduce their numbers. However, remember that this method may not be practical for insects that are too small to see or when populations are out of control.
If necessary, you can resort to pesticides to control insects that are causing significant damage to your plants. However, it’s important to exercise caution as some pesticides can harm humans, pets, and beneficial insects.
- Insecticidal soap: Insecticidal soap can be effective against soft-bodied insects such as aphids, thrips, and spider mites. It works by suffocating and dehydrating the pests. However, it may not be highly effective against larger insects like caterpillars.
- Bacillus thuringiensis (BT): BT is a naturally occurring bacteria that can control various insects. It is generally safe for mammals and earthworms, but it may have negative impacts on bees. Different strains of BT target specific types of insects, including beetles, flies, insect larvae, and caterpillars (Gervais et al., 2022).
- Diatomaceous earth (DE): DE is a powdery substance made from fossilized remains of marine organisms. It is effective against insects with exoskeletons, including both soft-bodied and hard-bodied pests. DE damages the insects’ outer layer, leading to dehydration and death.
When using any pesticide, it’s crucial to carefully follow the instructions and consider the potential impacts on non-target organisms. Using pesticides sparingly and selectively can help preserve the health of your plants while minimizing harm to beneficial insects and the overall ecosystem.
When it comes to pests on your pepper plants, being proactive and informed is key to maintaining their health and productivity. By understanding the common bugs affecting pepper plants and learning how to identify and address them, you can effectively manage infestations and minimize damage.
Remember, promoting a healthy ecosystem with natural predators and limiting pesticide use can go a long way in maintaining a balanced and thriving garden. By implementing the strategies and techniques discussed in this article, you can safeguard your pepper plants and enjoy a bountiful harvest of flavorful peppers.
Gervais, J.; Cocks, M.; Cross, A.; Jenkins, J. 2022. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) Fact Sheet; National Pesticide Information Center, Oregon State University Extension Services. http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/btgen.html.
Hahn, J. (2019). Cutworms in Home Gardens. UMN Extension. https://extension.umn.edu/yard-and-garden-insects/cutworms
Hornworms. Hornworms / Tomato / Agriculture: Pest Management Guidelines / UC Statewide IPM Program (UC IPM). (2013, December). https://ipm.ucanr.edu/agriculture/tomato/hornworms/
University of Florida. (n.d.). Aphids, mites, and thrips. Aphids, Mites, and Thrips – Gardening Solutions . https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/care/pests-and-diseases/pests/thrips.html