Hornworms are extremely expensive so if you’re looking for an easy and affordable way to provide your pet with a constant supply of delicious, nutritious worms, then breeding hornworms is the perfect solution!
Hornworms are easy to breed and care for, and they are packed with protein, calcium, and other essential nutrients. You can even let the worms pupate and grow into moths which many reptiles will also love to eat.
Keep reading to learn more because this article will show you how to breed hornworms successfully in your own home!
What are Hornworms?
Hornworms are the caterpillar stage of two species of hawk moth, Manduca quinquemaculata and Manduca sexta. They are so named because of the horn that protrudes from their rear end.
Most hornworms feed on the leaves of tomato plants, but some also feed on other plants in the nightshade family, including potato, eggplant, tobacco, and petunia. They can be a serious agricultural pest. The larvae are green or brown with white stripes down the back and sides and a black tail spike.
For this article, we will be looking at how to breed hornworms in the larval form of the Five-spotted Hawkmoth (Manduca Quinquemaculata).
How to Breed Hornworms
So, whether you want to just grow some hornworms, so they are big enough to feed to your pet, or you want to breed five-spotted hawkmoths full cycle so that you have a constant supply of hornworms and moths, our guide has you covered.
What You Need
- Hornworm Eggs
- Powdered Hornworm Food
- Gutter Guard Mesh 18in
- Deli Cup 12oz
- Twist Ties
- Pencil (or something sharp enough to pierce the plastic cup)
- 7.5l Tupperware Container
- Large Rubber Band
- Insect Screen
- Eco Earth
- Hummingbird Feeder
- Arcadia Shade Dweller 7% UVB
- Repti Zoo Screen Cage (amazon link – opens in a new tab)
- Spray Mist Water Bottle
- Tomato Plant
Step 1 – Order Your Equipment
To start off, you will need to get yourself prepared and make sure that you have everything that you need. Great Lakes Hornworms is a great place to start, and they are able to supply the eggs and food etc.
Note: If you are only planning on growing your worms so they are big enough for a small lizard to eat, you do not need anything on our list below the insect screen.
Step 2 – Prepare Your Cups
Now, some people like to cheat, and they purchase the ready-made feeder cups that already have the food and the gutter guard material inside – all you need to do is add the eggs.
We prefer to prepare our own feeder cups as this makes it easier to pull out the entire mesh and food when we are ready to transfer the worms to a bigger container.
- Cut a length of gg mesh so that it can reach the bottom of the cup and back up both sides to the lid.
- Pierce small holes in the base of the cups and then using the twist ties fix the gg mesh into place.
- Follow the instructions on the powdered worm food packet and mix accordingly
- Pour the worm food into the cup approx. 1-inch depth and wait to set (around 2 hours)
Note: If you have a large number of lizards to feed or want to keep your costs as low as possible and want to breed a good number of hornworms or moths, it is beneficial to make your own deli cups.
Step 3 – Add Your Eggs
Turn your cup upside down so that the lid now becomes the base. Remove the cup to expose the inside of the lid and place your eggs on the lid and then replace the cup.
Place your feeder cup somewhere that can be kept at approximately 75-80°f to incubate the eggs and maximize growth.
Now we wait for our eggs to hatch.
Step 4 – Raise Your Hornworms
The worms will hatch and climb up their homemade ladder to the food at the top of the cup.
The hornworms will begin eating ravenously and you will have to keep an eye on them and tend to them every day.
You need to take the lid off to clear the frass every day and it is important to inspect the food for mold. If you see any mold, white milky spots, or a film on the food you will want to get them transferred out of the cup into a new one as soon as possible to ensure your worms stay healthy.
Allow them to grow in the cup until they are around 1 – 1.5 inches long and they can then be moved.
Note: If you need to slow down the growth of the worms to prolong the time you can feed them, you can put them in the refrigerator for 24 hours at 50°f. One day in and one day out will be fine.
Step 5 – Prepare Your Worms New Home
Now you will need to prepare a larger container for your hornworms to be moved into.
- Take your 7.5l Tupperware container and remove the lid
- Place 4 upended bottle caps evenly spaced into the bottom of the container (these can be hot glued into place if you have the required tools)
- Cut some gutter guard to the shape of the container
- Rest the gutter guard on top of the bottle caps
- Add enough food to be consumed over the next 24 hours
- Take your insect screen and cover the top of the container and fix it in place with the rubber band (alternately, you can cut a hole into the container lid and hot glue the screen into place if you have the tools)
Step 6 – Transfer Your Worms to their New Home
When the hornworms grow big enough and the feeder cup becomes too overcrowded, it is now time to transfer them to a shoebox-sized Tupperware container and this is where they will stay until they reach their largest size and are ready to pupate.
At this stage, I usually separate my hornworms into two groups, the ones that will be feeders and the ones I will use for breeding.
Any that I plan to feed off, I will move them to a separate container and gut load them with greens, squash, carrots, and red bell peppers.
Note: They will readily eat many of your typical gut-loading veggies.
More for You: How to Gut Load Mealworms
Step 7 – Growing Your Hornworms
Your hornworms will still need good care and daily cleaning and feeding and if you are planning on letting them pupate to breed them, it is also a good idea to have them on a 14-hour light cycle to mimic the warmer months of the year.
Feeding Your Hornworms
Unlike the feeder cup, only feed them what they need each day, remove any leftover food from the previous day and help ensure the food stays fresh by storing the hornworm food in the refrigerator.
Cleaning Your Hornworms’ Container
The daily cleaning of the container is a simple task and is why we have the upended bottle caps in the bottom as this allows all the frass to simply fall through to the bottom.
Note: Your hornworms will grow to over 3-inches, if want to learn how to raise hornworms to moths, read on. If you just plan on feeding them off, you can gut load them as and when required.
Step 8 – Prepare Your Screen Cage
Depending on the size of your screen top cage, we recommend using a substrate tray or Tupperware container that fits in the bottom with a depth of at least 4-inches but preferably 6.
- Fill substrate tray with eco-earth (There are many options for substrate, we use eco earth, but some people use regular soil or moss)
- Moisten the substrate with a light misting
- Hang a small strip of insect screen from the top to the bottom
- Hang your hummingbird feeders
- I have a stick across the top to tie the hummingbird feeder to and I line the walls and floor with plastic used when painting – the plastic is optional, but the moths can be pretty messy. They can also kick up the dirt from the pupae tray while flying around.
Next Up: How to Raise Hornworms to Moths.
Step 9 – Transfer Your Hornworms to Screen Cage
This will be your hornworm’s third and final home as they burrow, pupate, and undergo metamorphosis into hawk moths.
You will know when your hornworms are ready to be moved because once your hornworms have reached over 3-inches, there will come a time when they stop eating and start roaming around. They will then change to a lighter color, and you will see the vein pulsing on their back.
When they are ready just put them into your prepared screen cage that has the moist substrate, and they will burrow when ready – some may burrow immediately while others may take a day or two.
After burrowing they will slowly begin to pupate. They will change from green to brown and eventually harden.
It is a good idea to continue with a longer daylight cycle (14-hrs) as this will aid in faster moth development. If they are on a short-day cycle (12-hrs) the pupae could go into diapause that can last for months.
Important: Ensure that you use your water bottle and mist the dirt each day to ensure the proper development of the moths. One major result of failing to keep them moist is stunted wing development – if the moths have stunted wings, they will not be able to fly and will not survive.
Step 10 – Freshen Substate and Check on the Chrysalis’s
Approximately a week after burrowing, gently dig up the pupated worms and do a quick substrate change.
We do this so that we can check that the pupated worms are okay and remove any that have not made it. This is an important stage because it is not uncommon to lose entire batches due to a worm that burrowed only to die and rot or due to feces being in the soil and molding.
Step 11 – Care for Your Moths
About 3-4 weeks after the hornworms pupate, they will begin to hatch into hawk moths. When the moths first emerge, they will have small wings, (their wings are wet when they hatch and they need to hang to get the blood flow going and pumping), once they climb up the screen they will sit there and puff out their wings to their full size.
They do this pretty quickly, so if you see a moth the next day that has small or wrinkled wings, they likely are deformed and won’t puff out to their full size. These moths will not last long as they cannot eat.
The moths will use their long proboscis and the hummingbird feeder in order to eat. It is best to use commercially available hummingbird food from your local grocery store.
Note: Attempting to mix your own solution could result in the death of your moths.
Step 12 – Harvesting the Eggs
Once the moths have emerged, I place a small potted tomato plant in the cage for them to lay their eggs on. The moths will breed by attaching their abdomens together and then the females will lay tons of eggs all over the plant and even on the cage walls and hummingbird feeder.
The eggs will be small and green, but they are fairly sturdy and easy to collect.
Important: Pick the eggs daily or they could get out of control.
Step 13 – Start Again
Once you have collected enough of your hawkmoth eggs, you can feed your moths off to your pet and go back to step 2 to start the cycle again.
Or, if you want a constant supply, you can have multiple setups working concurrently so that you always have access to either the hornworms themselves or the nice and juicy adult moths.
As you can see, it is not particularly difficult to breed hornworms. Whether you just plan to buy eggs and grow the worms for eating or whether you plan on going through the whole process, just a few minutes spare each day will ensure that you have an unlimited supply of fresh worms for your pet.
Don’t forget to gut load your worms with fresh greens prior to feeding so that as many of the healthy nutrients as possible can be passed to your little friend.
Reptile Wrestler Tips!
“For gut loading, use greens, squash, carrots, and red bell peppers!”
“14 daylight cycle is preferred to replicate the longer days of the summer months!”
“Specialized hummingbird food is the best food to feed your moths once they have emerged!”
“Once pupated, ensure to spray a mist over the substrate each day to prevent any deformities that may occur!”
What causes deformed or stunted wings on my hornworm hawk moths?
The cause of this is often due to a lack of moisture in the soil or substrate whilst they are in their pupae stage. It is important to mist the substrate daily. Another cause could simply be that the substrate was packed too tightly.
Do you need to use hornworm food, or can I use vegetables?
Hornworm food is recommended as it contains all of the desired nutrients for faster development, but your hornworms will still grow if you feed them on vegetables alone.
Is it difficult to breed hornworms?
No, it is not particularly difficult as long as you have a little time each day to clean, feed and maintain your worms.
Why are hornworms illegal in the UK?
Hornworms are the larvae of the five spotted hawk moth that is not native to the UK and in the UK, this moth is considered a pest.
How to make hornworms grow faster?
By keeping your hornworms on a 14-hour daylight cycle and using specialized hornworm food, you are giving your hornworm everything it needs for faster development and growth.
Can hornworms bite?
No, hornworms do not bite, nor do they sting. Hornworms do not pose any danger to humans.
Can leopard geckos eat hornworms?
Sure, leopard geckos can eat hornworms! In fact, they make a great meal for these little lizards. Hornworms are packed with protein and when gut-loaded correctly, they will contain other nutrients that help your leopard gecko stay healthy and strong.
Where can I buy hornworms in the UK?
If you live in the UK, you will not be able to provide your reptile with Hornworms as they are banned. Hornworms and the five-spotted hawk moth are illegal and not able to be sold as they are considered invasive pests in the wild.
Hi, I’m Stuart and I’ve had reptiles for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, I studied for a master’s in Herpetology. Over the years I have worked at several zoos before opening my very own reptile sanctuary. In my spare time, I run this website – which is a resource for people who want to learn more about their little beasties.