Helicoverpa armigera (Hübner, 1805)
Corn Earworm, Tomato Grub, Tobacco Budworm, Cotton Bollworm
(one synonym : Heliothis conferta Walker, 1857)
Don Herbison-Evans
Stella Crossley

Helicoverpa armigera

This Caterpillar is initially pale green, sometimes with black dots, and a pattern of thin dark lines running along the body, the lines being darker around the second and third segments.

Helicoverpa armigera

In later instars , the dark lines become less conspicuous, and the black spots develop red areas around them.

Helicoverpa armigera

There is a good deal of variation in colour in this species. Lighter and darker forms of both caterpillars and moths are known, for example, having white instead of black spots on the caterpillars.

Helicoverpa armigera

The caterpillar has posture when disturbed characteristic of a number of species in this family : it lifts its head and curls it under the front of the body. If even more disturbed, it lets go and drops, rolling into a spiral.

In the wild, it has been found on:

  • Annual Sowthistle ( Sonchus oleraceus, ASTERACEAE ),

    but it is a serious pest internationally on various crops, including :

  • Sunflowers ( Helianthus annuus, ASTERACEAE ),
  • Zucchini ( Cucurbita pepo, CUCURBITACEAE )
  • Beans ( Phaseolus vulgaris, FABACEAE ),
  • Leeks ( Allium porrum, LILIACEAE ),
  • Cotton ( Gossypium hirsutum, MALVACEAE ),
  • Maize ( Zea mays, POACEAE ),
  • Plum ( Prunus domestica, ROSACEAE ),
  • Lemon ( Citrus limon, RUTACEAE ), and
  • Tomatoes ( Lycopersicum esculentum, SOLANACEAE ),

    as well as ornamental plants and flowers, including:

  • Pinks ( Dianthus, CARYOPHYLLACEAE ),
  • Geranium ( Pelargonium x zonale, GERANIACEAE ).

    One specimen pictured above was actually found on :

  • Lettuce ( Lactuca sativa, ASTERACEAE )

    purchased from a supermarket in Bundaberg.

    Helicoverpa armigera
    close-upm of head and thorax
    (Photo: courtesy of David Akers, Won Wron, Victoria)

    When fully grown (4 cms.) it pupates in a cocoon under the soil.

    Helicoverpa armigera

    The adult moth emerges after between three weeks (summer) and six months (winter). It has brown forewings with a variable delicate darker tracery around a single dark mark on each wing. The hindwings are buff with a dark border which contains a pale patch.

    Helicoverpa armigera
    (Specimen: courtesy of the Macleay Museum, University of Sydney)

    The undersides are buff with dark submarginal bands on each wing, and each fore wing also has a black comma mark and a black full stop.

    Helicoverpa armigera
    (Specimen: courtesy of the Macleay Museum, University of Sydney)

    The adult moths look very similar to those of the related species in the same genus : Helicoverpa punctigera. However, for Helicoverpa armigera :

  • the caterpillars have white hairs on the prothorax,
  • the caterpillars have dark triangles on the first abdominal segment, and
  • the moths have a pale mark in the black border of the hindwing.

    Helicoverpa armigera
    Tuvalu, 1991

    The adults fly long distances, and these have been tracked by radar.
    The species is a pest over much of the world :

  • South America, including:
  • Africa, including:
    South Africa,
  • Europe, including:
    United Kingdom,
  • Asia, including:
  • Australasia, including:
    New Zealand,
    and most of Australia, including
  • Northern Territory,
  • Queensland,
  • Norfolk Island,
  • New South Wales,
  • Australian Capital Territory,
  • Victoria,
  • Tasmania,
  • South Australia, and
  • Western Australia.
  • In Europe, this species is often called the "Scarce Bordered Straw", but this name seems inappropriate in Australia where the caterpillar is so common. Note that the species does not seem to be established in the North America. In Australia, it is seldom found as far south as Melbourne. However, we regularly find it in Melbourne in ears of corn purchased from a greengrocer (that are presumably grown further north).

    The pheromones of this species have been identified.

    Unlike its relative: Heliocoverpa punctigera, this species develops resistance to many insecticides.
    Attempts are being made to control the caterpillar using :

  • pheromone lures,
  • special chemicals such as Larvin (a combined ovicide and larvicide),
  • insecticides such as Fenvalerate synergised with Piperonyl Butoxide,
  • extracts from Neem tree ( Azadirachta indica, MELIACEAE ),
  • a Cypovirus ( REOVIRIDAE ),
  • a Granulovirus ( BACULOVIRIDAE ),
  • a Stunt Virus ( TETRAVIRIDAE ),
  • a Poxvirus ( POXVIRIDAE ),
  • extracts of the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis ( BACILLACEAE ),
  • with Nematodes ( NEMATA ),
  • the caterpillar parasitoid wasp Microplitis croceipes ( BRACONIDAE ),
  • an egg parasitoid wasp Trichogramma species ( TRICHOGRAMMATIDAE ),
  • the pirate bug Orius tantillus ( ANTHOCORIDAE ), and
  • breeding plants that are resistant to this caterpillar.

    Further reading :

    Ian F.B. Common,
    Moths of Australia,
    Melbourne University Press, 1990, fig. 50.8, pp. 49, 64, 468.

    Jacob Hübner,
    Noctuae II. Genuinae B. &c.,
    Sammlung Europäischer Schmetterlinge,
    Volume 4 (1805), Plate 79, fig. 370.

    Peter Marriott & Marilyn Hewish,
    Moths of Victoria - Part 9,
    Cutworms and Allies - NOCTUOIDEA (C)
    Entomological Society of Victoria, 2020, pp. 34-35.

    Marcus Matthews,
    Heliothine Moths of Australia:
    A Guide to Pest Bollworms and Related Noctuid Groups,
    CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne 1999, pp 5-7, 14, 106-115, 183-184, 201, Plates 12, 13, 15, 19, 21, 22, 23.

    Paul Zborowski and Ted Edwards,
    A Guide to Australian Moths,
    CSIRO Publishing, 2007, p. 198.

    Australian Butterflies
    Australian Moths

    (updated 15 April 2013, 5 June 2023)