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UMaine Cooperative Extension: Insect Pests, Ticks and Plant Diseases

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Fact Sheets - Cutworms

Pest Management Fact Sheet #5015


James F. Dill, Pest Management Specialist
Clay A. Kirby, Insect Diagnostician

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Description & Biology

Cutworms are categorized as surface, climbing, army or subterranean.  Because of their many similarities, it is often difficult to tell one species of cutworm from another.  However, there is variation in life cycles.  In Maine, many cutworms have only one generation per year, although some can produce two generations.

Some cutworm caterpillars cut off young plants, and stunt or kill taller plants by feeding on underground roots and stems.  Corn, peppers, tomatoes and beans seem to be their favorite food, but they will attack many kinds of plants.  The larvae are nocturnal, hiding in the soil during daylight hours except on dark, wet days.

Cutworms overwinter in the late larval or pupal stage.  The brownish gray moths may appear shortly after warm weather arrives.  The moths are attracted to weedy fields, especially if mustard or quackgrass is present.  They also may lay their eggs in weedy, overgrown gardens before spring planting.

Once gardens are planted, the young larvae feed on small roots until they are half grown, or about 3/4 inches long.  After that, they become more likely to cut off plants at ground level.  They may drag part of the plant into the soil, where they hide during the day.  The larvae can usually be found hiding in the soil in the daytime near a cut plant.  The thick-bodied larvae are normally dark colored and curl up when disturbed. 


The most important means of controlling cutworms is to avoid planting in soil that was sod covered in the previous year or two and to keep crop areas as weed-free as possible, especially in September, October and in spring.  This discourages the moths from laying their eggs in the garden in early fall as well as in the spring.  Using compost instead of green manure will also discourage infestation.  Fall plowing and tillage may help destroy or expose overwintering pupae.

Climbing cutworms can be handpicked off the plants well after dark.  Placing collars around stems, pushing the collars 1 inch into the soil, or wrapping stems with aluminum foil protects young plants.  The effectiveness of mulch as a control depends on the material used and how it is applied.  Similarly, the effectiveness of insecticides in controlling cutworms depends on when, where and how they are applied.

Depending on the label, the following insecticides can be applied to surrounding soil, stems, or foliage; Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), spinosad, carbarl (Sevin), cyfluthrin, and permethrin. Bait formulations have special advantages: direct toxic effect on caterpillars and attractiveness.  Make sure the insecticide label permits the use of the product on the intended crop.

When Using Pesticides


Pest Management Office
491 College Avenue, Orono, ME 04473-1295
1-800-287-0279 (in Maine)

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

© 2009, 2013
Published and distributed in furtherance of Acts of Congress of May 8 and June 30, 1914, by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, the Land Grant University of the state of Maine and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Cooperative Extension and other agencies of the U.S.D.A. provide equal opportunities in programs and employment.

Call 800-287-0274 or TDD 800-287-8957 (in Maine), or 207-581-3188, for information on publications and program offerings from University of Maine Cooperative Extension, or visit

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Contact Information

UMaine Cooperative Extension: Insect Pests, Ticks and Plant Diseases
491 College Avenue
Orono, Maine 04473-1295
Phone: 207.581.3880, 800.287.0279 (in Maine) or 800.287.8957 (TDD)E-mail:
The University of Maine
Orono, Maine 04469
A Member of the University of Maine System