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What’s Eating Your Peppers At Night?

There’s nothing quite like fresh-picked peppers, straight from the garden. However, it can be frustrating to wake up and find your pepper plants have been chewed by a nocturnal pest. You work hard in the garden all day, only to find bite marks in your peppers and pepper leaves by morning. So, what’s eating your peppers at night?

There are a few different culprits that could be responsible. One of the easiest ways to determine what may be feeding on your plants at night is go out in the garden and observe after hours. Rustle through the soil, check the undersides of leaves, and examine your fruit. You may find the pest you’re looking for!

If you’re not sure whether you are dealing with pests or disease, be sure to reference this page on diseases and problems as well. Here are some of the most common nocturnal feeders that may be ravaging your pepper (and nightshade) crops:

1. Slugs and snails

Slug on pepper plant leaf

When it comes to overnight destruction, slugs and snails are a popular culprit. In fact, they’re usually the first pest to come to mind. Slugs and snails can cause quite a bit of damage, especially to young seedlings and tender leaves. If you’re finding that your peppers are being eaten overnight, slugs or snails very well may be to blame.

What the damage looks like: Slugs and snails typically leave behind large, ragged holes in leaves or fruits. You may also see slime trails around the garden. Slugs and snails also love to eat hostas. So, if you notice similar damage on your hosta plants, slugs may be the problem.

How to control them: If slugs and snails are an issue in your garden, you have a lot of options. First, try using a commercial slug and snail bait. These baits contain iron phosphate, which is a natural substance that is toxic to slugs and snails. You can also create a beer trap by burying a cup or can in the ground and filling it with beer. The slugs and snails will be attracted to the yeast in the beer and will crawl in, only to drown. However, this is only effective on a very small area and you need to replenish the bait frequently.

Many garden centers also sell copper tape, which acts a barrier for the slugs. You can use this tape around your raised beds or potted peppers. Those of you that have been sprinkling coffee grounds around your plants may be on to something. There is some research showing that coffee grounds (specifically the caffeine), is effective at deterring slugs.

Finally, you can hand-pick the slugs and snails from your garden. This is time-consuming, but it will definitely reduce the population. When controlling slugs in your garden, it’s important to maintain good air circulation around your plants. Prune lower leaves, limit your mulch, and provide adequate drainage.

2. Cutworms / Caterpillars

Cutworm next to cutworm damage
Cutworm curled up next to damaged plant (plant has been “cut” and toppled over)

Cutworms are another common culprit when it comes to overnight damage to pepper plants. These caterpillars are the larvae of several different moths, and they’re often seen in gardens, eating young plants.

Cutworms are most active at night, but you may also see them on a cloudy day. When disturbed, cutworms curl up tightly into a “C” shape. They come in many colors and textures, from black to brown, or smooth to rough.

What the damage looks like: There are different species of cutworms and they damage plants in different ways. Surface cutworms will munch at the stem of the plant, eventually causing it to fall right over (which is where the cutworm got its name). Some cutworms climb up stems and feed, while subterranean cutworms feed on underground roots and stems.

How to control them: Handpicking cutworms, using bait, or creating “plant collars” for the stems of your plants are all effective ways of controlling this pest. You can use cardboard, foil, or plastic to create a small collar for your vulnerable peppers. Be sure to stay on top of your weeding as well.

3. Earwigs

Earwig on pepper plant

Earwigs are small, dark-colored insects with pincers on their rear end. These pests are active at night and they hide during the day in small crevices or under mulch. Earwigs are attracted to soft, tender fruits and leaves, which makes them a real problem for gardeners.

However, we have a love-hate relationship with earwigs. Even though they can devastate young pepper plants, they also feed on aphids, one of the most common and frustrating pepper plant pests.

What the damage looks like: Earwigs typically leave behind small, ragged holes in leaves or soft fruits. The damage from earwigs looks similar to that of caterpillars. If you’re wondering whether earwigs are the culprit, consider going outside at night to observe.

How to control them: Because earwigs are also considered beneficial, controlling them isn’t always necessary. If your earwig problem is out of control, you can bait and trap them with a simple oil trap. Simply use a cat food or tuna fish can with roughly 1 inch of fish or vegetable oil along with bacon grease/meat juice at the bottom. Discard of any earwigs that you catch and refill the trap. The trap works best when the can is buried in the soil at ground level.

It’s important to note that this trap can attract critters! To keep populations under control, be mindful of any decaying/moist material around your home and garden (such as old mulch). Spinosad is also effective against earwigs (see Captain Jack’s).

4. Beetles

Japanese beetle
Japanese beetles (shown above) are not nocturnal feeders, however Asiatic beetles do feed at night.

Beetles are one of the most destructive pests in gardens. From Japanese beetles to Asiatic beetles, these pests can quickly decimate a crop. The Asiatic beetle is a nocturnal feeder that will happily munch away at the leaves of your pepper plants. We had a big issue with these beetles this past summer!

What the damage looks like: Beetle damage typically looks like small, irregular holes. The damage is typically scattered across the plant, rather than concentrated in one area. Asiatic beetles feed on the edges of leaves, while Japanese beetles leave behind a pattern that resembles lace. One thing to note is that Asiatic beetles are active at night, while Japanese beetles are active during the day. So, this can help you differentiate as well.

Asiatic beetle damage versus Japanese beetle damage

How to control them: The best way to control Asiatic beetles is by knocking them off your plants into a bucket of soapy water. Like other pests, they prefer moist environments and won’t survive as well in drought conditions.

5. Hornworms

Hornworm eating tomato

Hornworms are the caterpillars of large moths. They get their name from the “horn” that protrudes from their rear end. Hornworms can destroy an entire plant in a matter of days, so they’re definitely a pest to be on the lookout for. While typically feasting on tomatoes, they will also eat peppers and other crops in the nightshade family.

What the damage looks like: Like most other pests, hornworm damage typically looks like large, irregular holes in leaves or fruits. These pests start feeding on the upper part of the plant and leave behind black droppings that are easily visible to the naked eye.

How to control them: The best way to control hornworms is by hand-picking them off your plants and disposing of them. You can also use predatory insects. Green lacewings and ladybugs will feed off eggs, and predatory wasps will feed on the grown hornworms. If you must use a pesticide, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and Spinosad are both good options for hornworms. Spinosad is toxic to bees when wet, so be sure to use this product when bees are not active.

In addition to the pests listed above, there are other possibilities. If deer have nothing else to eat, they will also happily munch on your pepper plants. You may also be dealing with aphids, one of the most common and frustrating pepper pests.

Have you noticed any damage to your pepper plants overnight? Leave a comment and let us know if you have found any nocturnal feeders (and what they were!).