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What is Eating My Pepper Plants? — 7 Culprits

What is Eating My Pepper Plants? — 7 Culprits

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What is Eating My Pepper Plants? Growing pepper plants (​Capsicum​ spp.) is tricky enough without contending with the hungry caterpillars and numerous other insects that devour them. 

I love my peppers and grow them every season. I also swear at the end of every season never to grow peppers again. The reason is all these critters and bugs that make the life of pepper growers miserable.

It’s one thing to find the occasional hole in a leaf here and there, but when something is chowing down your entire plant, you obviously can’t take a back seat then. 

Take control, find the culprit, eliminate it, or take steps to bring your insect population under control. 

Some insects you will want to keep, just with a better balance. 

What is eating my pepper plants?

Hornworms can defoliate a pepper plant overnight. Slugs and earwigs can do largescale damage too. As can soft-bodied insects. Pepper weevils deposit eggs in the fruits, which hatch and then eat their way out. Flea beetles cause shothole damage to leaves, and pillbugs eat young pepper plant seedlings.

What is Eating my Pepper Plants?
What is Eating my Pepper Plants?

1. Slugs

Did you know pepper plants are slug magnets? 

Gardeners use these as bait stations to keep slugs away from other plants they want to grow. 

Any plant high in nutrients (which the pepper plant is) will attract slugs. 

Spraying the leaves with insecticidal soap isn’t enough to stop slugs munching through the leaves of a pepper plant. 

It’s a contact insecticide only, meaning you must spray them directly. 

It has a similar effect as pouring salt directly onto the slug. Kills on impact. 

If it’s on the leaves, it’ll deter the slugs. It won’t stop them from returning. 

And you’ll have difficulty consistently treating your plant to prevent a slug onslaught. 

Wherever you’re growing pepper plants, you need a barrier to stop them from reaching them. 

Diatomaceous earth (De) is like shards of glass that’ll rip the skin of slugs, causing dehydration and death. 

It’s debated whether it’s painful because slugs don’t have brains, so they can’t feel pain. 

But, if you’ve ever salted a slug, it looks like it’s in agony. It’s the same dehydration process that diatomaceous earth causes. 

The more humane thing to do is bait them with moist cardboard or damp logs and relocate them to the compost bin, where they can be put to work for you. 

They’ll eat decomposing plant material. 

Better in there than on your pepper plants. 

2. Pepper weevils

Early signs of a pepper weevil presence are the yellowing of the calyx of pepper plants. That’s part of the plant at the base of the stalk that attaches to the pepper. 

The calyx is a system of modified leaves that should protect the fruit. It should be green. If it’s yellow, there’s a good chance of a weevil presence. 

Pepper weevils are tiny, only about an eighth of an inch in size. These don’t do the most damage, though. 

The eggs they inject into the calyx of a pepper plant are what destroy it from the inside out. 

Pepper weevils bore holes near the calyx, injecting eggs into the fruit. A few days is all it needs for the eggs to hatch.

They start devouring the pepper, working towards the seeds when that happens. 

The fast degradation of smaller ornamental pepper plants like the Jalapeño can cause the fruit to fall to the ground. 

Larger peppers, like bell peppers and poblanos, can hang on for longer. They’ll still have the yellow calyx, though. 

The only way to control pepper weevils is through sheer vigilance so you can use an insecticide on the adults. 

Once they bore into the fruit to deposit eggs, the peppers are ruined.

3. Hornworms

Hornworms are attracted to all fruiting plants and will cause extensive damage. They can munch holes in every leaf on your plant overnight. 

They’ll do the same with your fruits when they finish the leaves. 

These are green in color, making them hard to detect. A tell-tale sign is the fast defoliation of your pepper plants. 

Often, spraying the leaves with a jet stream of water is enough to dislodge them. 

These look like green worms, so if you see them, remove them asap. 

The eggs they leave are in the soil, so treating the soil with an insecticide can kill the eggs before new larvae emerge.

4. Flea beetles

Flea beetles love munching on the pepper plants’ leaves. They’re small in size, as are the holes they leave. 

However, small holes naturally expand as the leaf enlarges.

If you see big holes in the leaves of your pepper plants, inspect the edges to see if the damage is sealed or ragged. 

Holes with ragged edges are newly chewed, indicating that an insect is taking chunks of the leaf. 

Holes with a smooth “sealed” edge are more likely to be an old wound that’s enlarged naturally as the leaf size grew to allow the ragged edges to heal over. 

Flea beetles can cause big holes with a smooth edges on mature leaves. The early signs of flea beetle damage are shot holes in your leaves. 

5. Earwigs

Earwigs are beneficial insects in the garden unless their population spirals out of control. 

Despite having pincers and wings, making them look like dangerous insects that can give you a nasty bite, they will only pinch. 

And even then, it’s only for self-defense. 

Earwigs use their pincers mostly to hunt their prey. That’s smaller insects like aphids, spider mites, mealybugs, thrips, and similar garden pests that you’d struggle to control without beneficial bugs being around. 

In that respect, earwigs are garden helpers. 

But they’re also omnivores. They prefer to eat insects. 

But in large enough numbers, there won’t be a sufficient insect population for them all to eat. That’s when they’ll turn on your plants. 

The damage earwigs do when they start chowing down your plants is similar to the damage caterpillars cause. 

Small holes, irregularly spaced, mostly around the leaf margins where their pincers help them to hold on to the leaf as they eat it. 

When a garden earwig population gets out of control to the extent that they start devouring your plants, you must trap them. 

The climates earwigs prefer are dark and moist environments. The same habitats that attract slugs and snails. 

The same control techniques for slugs and snails work for earwigs too. 

Beer traps dampened cardboard on your mulch or damp wood logs. Either drown them in beer traps or bait them with moistened wood or cardboard.

Earwigs are nocturnal feeders that’ll eat your pepper plants at night. 

Lay some moist cardboard on top of your mulch or on the soil overnight, then in the morning, drop whatever earwigs are latched onto the cardboard into a bucket of soapy water to drown them. 

6. Pillbugs

Pillbugs are another beneficial insect in the garden unless you’re growing very young seedlings. 

The preferred food choice for the pill bug is garden debris like fallen leaves, grass clippings, and dead plants. The stuff is reserved for the compost pile. 

They’ll also eat the eggs laid by stink bugs, so in that respect, they’re a handy helper on the leaves of mature pepper plants. 

On young seedlings, though, they can eat through those, including the stems preventing the seeds from sprouting. 

Pillbugs are under an inch in size, are grayish-brown, and have 7 pairs of legs. 

When touched, they roll up into a ball. That’s why they’re nicknamed the “roly-poly bug”. Poke it with a twig, and it’ll curl up into a ball. 

Like slugs, snails, and earwigs, they’re nocturnal creatures that hide in dark, moist crevices like under rocks and damp logs. 

They aren’t a problem on mature plants, but if you spot them on young seedlings, move them to your compost bin, where they’ll happily feed on decaying organic matter. 

7. Soft-bodied insects

Soft-bodied insects are attracted to any plant as the sap inside the leaf is what their diet needs. 

This category of insects includes spider mites, aphids, thrips, whiteflies, leafhoppers, and soft-scale bugs. 

Each of these teeny insects has teeth that pierce holes in the leaves of pepper plants (and many others) to feed on the sap in the leaf. 

They all have the same habit of hiding on the underside of leaves and congregating in big numbers. 

Draining the sap from the leaves will cause pepper plants to wilt. 

Their poop is called honeydew, a reference to the sticky substance they coat the leaves with, which later attracts ants. 

Ants won’t eat them, but they will farm them. 

The soft-bodied insects survive by sucking the sap from the leaves, and the ants need them to keep doing that so they’ll poop more, then ants survive on insect poop. What a life!

Bugs on Pepper Plants

The most common bugs on pepper plants are aphids, spider mites, flea beetles, whiteflies, and thrips. These are all plant-sucking insects that suck the sap from the pepper plant. Plant leaves and stems start to yellow and wilt.

The best way to counter bugs on pepper plants is to use horticultural soap, neem oil, rubbing alcohol, beneficial nematodes such as lacewings and ladybugs, and systemic insecticide.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s eating my pepper plants at night?

Nocturnal feeders prone to eating pepper plants include slugs, earwigs, and pepper weevils. However, weevils are likely to deposit eggs rather than chowing numerous holes in the plant. The hornworm is the smallest pest that does the most intense damage to pepper plants overnight. 

Related: What is eating my pepper plants at night

What are safe organic methods to stop pests from eating pepper plants?

For crawling insects, applying food-grade diatomaceous earth can prevent crawling insects from reaching your plant. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a natural bacteria that won’t harm humans but will paralyze caterpillars when they eat it, helping to control hornworms on pepper plants.

Do slugs eat pepper plants?

Slugs indeed eat pepper plants. Some gardeners claim this is false and that slugs only attack plants with soft leaves, such as salad and spinach. This is untrue, as I find slugs on my peppers each season. Slugs hate rough surfaced. So put some egg shells around your peppers.