What’s Eating My Pepper Plant? Pepper Pests

Are bugs munching on your pepper plants? Out-of-control pest populations quickly remove sap, nutrients, and life from peppers. Learn how to combat these infestations alongside seasoned pepper grower Jerad Bryant.

Close-up of a young pepper seedling with oval bright green leaves damaged by pests.

Contents

What is a pest? We use the term “pest” for bugs that quickly reproduce and suck the life out of plants. As we learn more about natural spaces and ecology, our attitude towards pest control changes and adapts. We now know that aphids and similar pests are part of a larger food web that impacts birds, mammals, and other bugs. 

Knowing that our actions impact the local environment will help us decide which solutions are best for pest control. We’ll want to choose actions that have small impacts on the surrounding flora and fauna. Rather than jumping for the chemical pesticides, let’s try organic and non-lethal methods first. 

You may wonder, “Do organic methods work?” I am here to confirm that they do. I’ve been growing peppers for over five years using organic and chemical-free methods. Each year, I grow more peppers than I know what to do with! Follow my quick tips, and you’ll have productive peppers and a harmonious garden in no time.

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The Short Answer

These bugs love to eat pepper plants:

  • Aphids
  • Flea and Cucumber Beetles
  • Corn Borers and Earworms
  • Hornworms and Cutworms
  • Pepper Weevils
  • Slugs and Snails
  • Stink Bugs
  • Thrips
  • Whiteflies

Each of these pests thrives and reproduces according to their life cycle. Learn how and when they grow, and you’ll have the proper tools to prevent them from multiplying further.

The Long Answer

How to best combat a pest depends on a few factors: what type of bug it is, whether or not natural predators are already eating it, and how your garden is set up. Read through each section to learn how to get them off your crops. 

Aphids

Aphids are tiny, soft-bodied insects with pale green pear-shaped bodies, found clustering on the green stem.
Manage aphid populations early to prevent plant damage and infestation.

Aphids are small insects with squishable bodies no longer than ⅛ of an inch. They feed in groups and form colonies that quickly overrun young plants. Plants with significant aphid populations have curling leaves, discoloration, and mottled buds and stems. Aphids excrete a sticky substance that ants like to feast on, so you’ll often see ants farming the aphids in extreme infestations.

Aphids start to reproduce in spring and summer when the weather warms. They multiply through eggs and asexually and can birth up to 30 generations a year! Control populations before they get out of hand, as they quickly overrun small seedlings and saplings.

Control severe aphid infestations with strong, direct streams of water each day. Spray water from a hose or pressurized bottle directly onto aphid populations. The water knocks them off the plant, making them more susceptible to soil predators. If there are small aphid populations, leave them be and monitor them. You may find ladybugs, assassin bugs, and parasitic wasps eating them for you! 

Beetles

The flea beetle is a small, shiny, metallic black beetle with enlarged hind legs on a green pepper leaf in the garden.
Protect peppers from hungry flea and cucumber beetles with strategic care.

Both flea and cucumber beetles attack peppers when they’re hungry. Damage appears as small, round holes in leaves and stems. Flea beetles are black and hop when disturbed. Cucumber beetles are yellow and black with spots or lines. Cucumber beetles also like to chew on flowers and seedlings—they’ll consume entire flowers off their favorite plants!

These two beetle types overwinter as adults beneath rotting leaves and garden debris. They lay eggs primarily in the soil, but some cucumber beetles lay them on the plants they feed on. A spring frenzy occurs as eggs hatch and adults come out of their protective homes to feed on live plant matter. Use row cover in early spring to keep them away; remove the cover when flowers appear so pollinators come in. 

Other methods involve predatory nematodes as biological controls; these predators attack the beetle larvae underground, so you don’t have to. Use Steinernema riobrave for cucumber beetles and Heterorhabditis bacteriophora for flea beetles. Bolster plant immunity by choosing beetle-resistant pepper varieties. Mulch heavily with compost—rotting organic matter provides nutrients to pepper plants and makes them resilient to pest attacks.

Corn Borers and Earworms

The corn earworm is a caterpillar with a cylindrical body striped in shades of gray and brown on a green leaf.
Prevent earworm and borer infestations to safeguard your peppers.

Both of these worms are the larvae of adult moths that prefer corn over anything else. They sometimes feed on peppers when they are near corn infestations. The moths lay eggs on susceptible plants, where they hatch after a few days. Damage appears on leaves and fruits as the wormy larvae bore into the chiles and cause significant damage. 

Prevention is the best method, as once these critters are inside fruit, it is nearly impossible to control them. Discard infected fruit, and remove infested plants after the growing season. Be sure to pick up any rotting pepper fruits so borers and earworms don’t overwinter in your garden.

Where infestations are particularly severe, consider crop rotation. Plant peppers in a separate location where the larvae are unlikely to be. Rotating locations every year or two keeps the population low. 

Hornworms and Cutworms

Close-up of a green caterpillar eating the leaves of a young pepper seedling in a garden against a blurred background.
Worms threaten young plants from above and below ground.

Worms attack pepper plants when they want to feast. Tomato hornworms feast aboveground on plant leaves, with one worm quickly defoliating young plants. The worms are three to five inches long, green with white stripes, and have a red or black horn structure that grows off their behinds.

Cutworms are much smaller and live below the soil. They are white with brown-black markings, and they curl up into a “C” shape when disturbed. These worms feed on tender young seedlings and saplings below the soil; their name “cutworm” comes from the cutting action they do on starts and transplants. 

Control hornworms by handpicking them off afflicted plants. Relocate them to wild nightshades or other nightshade plants you don’t mind them nibbling on if you want to support sphinx moth pollination.  You can also dispose of the worms in a nearby bird feeder or bury them. Parasitic wasps lay their eggs on this pest—if you see multiple white sacs on the worm, leave it be. The wasp larvae hatch out of the sacs and kill the worm, and then they mature into adult wasps to repeat the cycle. 

Keep cutworms at bay by clearing all early spring sprouting weeds. They use the weedy greenery as a food source, and removing it deprives them of food. Place saucers with cornmeal where cutworms thrive; the cornmeal attracts them, but they can’t digest it. Beneficial nematodes Steinernema carpocapsae and S. feltiae attack cutworms and work well as biological control.

Pepper Weevils

The Pepper Weevil is a small, dark-colored beetle with distinctive long snouts and elbowed antennae, observed on a raised wooden bed with young pepper seedlings growing nearby.
Tiny beetles ruin peppers by nesting inside and causing decay.

Pepper weevils are nasty little critters that live inside pepper fruits. They form networks of holes inside the chiles and leave their waste lying about. Fruits with pepper weevils have a hole of entry, and they’re mushy with signs of rot and discoloration. 

Like corn borers, pepper weevil larvae hatch and eat the inside of the peppers. The larvae are tiny white worms with segments. Adult pepper weevils look like tiny black beetles. They, too, consume pepper fruit. 

Pepper weevils overwinter in fallen fruit and decaying plants. To effectively control their spread, pull up infested plants at the end of the season, and discard them away from the garden. Remove any fallen fruit from the soil. These steps should keep this pest away for the next growing season. 

Slugs and Snails

Close-up of a Roman snail, a large terrestrial gastropod with a rounded, spiral shell adorned with distinct brown and cream-colored bands, on a pepper plant with a red elongated fruit and oval tapered leaves of a bright green color.
Leaf-eating slugs and snails threaten young garden plants.

Common garden pests, slugs and snails attack young seedlings and transplants before they establish themselves. Damage appears on leaves, where they eat all of the fleshy parts and leave the leaf veins. These slow crawlers leave irregular holes on leaves, and they hide under decaying organic matter.

There are thousands of species worldwide, and they vary in appearance. They lay eggs in the soil, which then hatch into baby crawlers. Both adults and youngsters feed readily on decaying and fresh plant matter—some species are predatory carnivores and eat other slugs!

A few slugs aren’t bad—they are the natural prey of chickens, ducks, and garter snakes. In wet areas, toads, frogs, and other amphibians love feasting on these slimy creatures. Protect young plants with a strip of copper buried in the soil; the copper reacts with their slime and shocks them. Saucers of beer attract both slugs and snails with the smell of yeast. They fall into the saucers and can’t get back up! Organic slug bait is also an option. 

Stink Bugs

Close-up of a Stink Bug, a shield-shaped insect with mottled brown coloration, on a flowering pepper plant.
The invasive brown marmorated stink bug damages pepper plants extensively.

A foreign plant predator, stink bugs migrated to North America from Asia in the 1990s. Known as the brown marmorated stink bug, this pest feeds on the entire pepper plant. It leaves mottled damage on leaves, and small discolored dimples on peppers. Adult stink bugs have a shield shape and are shorter than an inch. 

One annoying behavior of theirs is their overwintering; rather than stay outdoors, they come indoors to enjoy the warmth. Trap bugs indoors, squish them, and compost them. Outdoors, hand pick them.

Thrips

Close-up of a small white pepper flower infested with tiny, elongated insects with fringed wings known as Thrips.
Тiny thrips threaten plants with virus spread and leaf damage.

Pests known as thrips are common in greenhouse and indoor growing situations, where they thrive with little disturbance in their life cycle. They are smaller than a centimeter with bright green and yellow hues. Thrips feed on flowers, ripening fruit, and leaves. Adults lay eggs inside the leaves, shielding younglings from pesticides, predators, and squishing. 

This bug springs off of plants when you disturb or shake them. Use this to your advantage and hose down plants with severe infestations. Do this once or twice a day until the thrips go away; keep an eye on your plants so you can spray off newly hatched babies. 

Thrips spread viruses that prove fatal to pepper plants. Plant disease-resistant varieties and further bolster your plants’ strengths. Cover the ground with compost and keep your peppers well watered—healthy plants are resilient, and a little preventative care goes a long way for pest resistance.

Whiteflies

Close-up of a man's hand showing Chili leaves infected with whiteflies that appear stippled with tiny, white, moth-like insects.
Tiny whiteflies thrive in warm indoor environments, attracting natural predators.

Whiteflies are a favorite food for lacewings, ladybugs, and parasitic wasps. They are almost microscopic, measuring no longer than 1/20” to 1/10” long. They fly around but prefer to stay in groups in a particular area. Like thrips, whiteflies thrive in warm conditions commonly found in indoor greenspaces and greenhouses. 

Whiteflies are difficult to control once they establish themselves. Attract mature flies with yellow boards coated in a sticky substance. Yellow colors attract the whiteflies, and glue or a similar sticky substance binds them to the board. These are best used in greenhouses and enclosed areas as they attract and harm all insects. 

This fly occurs heavily in areas where synthetic pesticides and herbicides are consistently present—the chemicals kill all bugs, including predatory control species. Without predators, whiteflies quickly return and colonize the area. Use organic methods, and foster a diverse mix of flowering plants to invite natural pest predators into the landscape. 

Final Thoughts

By the time you’re reading this article, chances are pests are on your pepper plant! Spray them off, put some compost down, and cut the infested parts off. With continued monitoring, spraying, and prevention, the pests of this year will be long gone by next year. 

For immediate results, try traps, biological controls, and protective structures. Squishing aphids and beetles may seem gross, but it helps your plants when they need it most. Get in there, get dirty, and protect those peppers! They’ll thank you for it in autumn when they produce bushels of fruit. 

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