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Corn Earworm Moth (Helicoverpa zea)

Detailing the physical features, habits, territorial reach and other identifying qualities of the Corn Earworm Moth

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Image Credit: Valerie S., taken in Austin, TX
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The numerous variations in the Corn Earworm Moth are equally manifested in its maize-eating caterpillar.

Updated: 10/26/2023; Authored By Staff Writer; Content ©www.InsectIdentification.org
Corn Earworm Moths come in such different forms that when they are collected and placed next to each other, they look like moths from a completely different genus. Some are tawny and golden brown, while others have deep green hues. Others are a mix of both pale brown and pale green. All adults have green eyes, which is not that common among moths, and makes it a helpful feature for narrowing down an identity. Most adults also have a round spot with a dark dot in the center of each forewing. A brown or dark scalloped line near the bottom of the wings has white or white-and-black dots at the pointed tips. Dark wavy lines in the upper area of the forewings may be visible, or may be faint depending on the individual.

The corn-loving caterpillar comes in a variety of colors, too. They may by brown, orange, or green, with pink, yellow, or black markings on them. The fleshy body is covered in tiny spines, giving its surface a textured, almost rough feeling. Because their preferred host plant is a critically important staple crop, this species has been, and continues to be, studied. If the larvae aren't preventing pollination by chewing at corn silk, they are found eating ripe kernels inside the corn ear. They also eat other popular vegetable crops like tomatoes and lettuces, eating the fruit, and sometimes burrowing into lettuce heads. Adults migrate north and can produce multiple broods in a year. Larvae can pupate through cold winters in the northern U.S., but populations in southern Canada are replaced by migrants each year. Some areas can have a mixed population of caterpillars that overwintered combined with caterpillars from newly arrived adults. These areas usually experience more crop damage because of the volume of insects.

Controlling the population size of the Corn Earworm Moth is important for saving harvests. Trapping adults with lures helps reduce reproduction. Artificial selection has helped grow corn lines that have tighter husks, making it harder for caterpillar to get into the ear. Genetic engineering has introduced a gene that produces an insect toxin, made by a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, inside the corn which kills feeding larvae, reducing their numbers and the amount of damage they do. Concerns about earworm resistance to the toxin are inspiring new techniques to manage this insect's population. A management strategy that uses all of these methods together has offered the best results thus far.

Look for adults taking nectar from flowers, or flying in and around cornfields.©InsectIdentification.org

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General Characteristics

Capability, Shape, Texture/Pattern, Benefits, Dangers
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Pest insect icon

Taxonomic Hierarchy

Species Breakdown
Kingdom: Animalia
  Phylum: Arthropoda
    Class: Insecta
      Order: Lepidoptera
        Family: Noctuidae
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          Genus: Helicoverpa
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            Species: zea

Identifying Information

Size, Colors, Features
Scientific Name: Helicoverpa zea
Other Name(s): Tomato Fruitworm Moth, Bollworm Moth, Vetchworm Moth, Sorghum Headworm Moth
Category: Butterfly or Moth
Size (Adult; Length): 32mm to 45mm (1.25" to 1.77")
Colorwheel Graphic Colors: brown, green, white, black, gray
Descriptors: pale green, green eyes, flying, pest, maize, crop pest

Relative Size Comparison

Typical Size Between 32mm (1.3in) and 45mm (1.8in)
Lo: 32mm
Md: 38.5mm
Hi: 45mm

Territorial Map*

U.S., Canada, and Mexico
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Prince Edward Is.  
* MAP NOTES: The territorial heat map above showcases (in red) the states and territories of North America where the Corn Earworm Moth may be found (but is not limited to). This sort of data is useful when attempting to see concentrations of particular species across the continent as well as revealing possible migratory patterns over a species' given lifespan. Some insects are naturally confined by environment, weather, mating habits, food resources and the like while others see widespread expansion across most, or all, of North America. States/Territories shown above are a general indicator of areas inhabited by the Corn Earworm Moth. Insects generally go where they please, typically driven by diet, environmental changes, and / or mating habits.
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