An Organic Way to Remove Tent Caterpillars From Fruit Trees

I grow fruit on my small hobby farm in Virginia and have an orchard of about 28 fruit trees, total. Peaches are usually our best performing fruit trees. This morning, I noticed tent caterpillars setting up shop on one of the branches of this peach tree.
Tent caterpillars are dangerous because once they emerge from the web-like tent, they can quickly defoliate (strip the leaves) off of your tree. Although it won't kill the tree outright, it will cause the tree great stress. It will put more energy into producing new leaves to survive rather than producing fruit. It's important to remove tent caterpillars as quickly as you spot them. I prefer using an organic method to do so, which I will teach you here.
This is a tent of tent caterpillars on my peach tree. The Eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum) is the young of a nondescript brown moth. The female moth lays a batch of 200 to 300 eggs in late fall or early spring . When the young hatch, they spin the telltale tent. They feed three times a day, at day, noon and night, each time emerging from the tent to find leaves to eat. They expand the tent each day too so that as they grow, their tent grows. These young have just hatches. Adult caterpillars can be an inch long. These are only a few centimeters.
I prefer to use an organic method of removing tent caterpillars. Here is my equipment: a plastic zip lock bag, rubber gloves, and a rock. The feline helper is optional, although my cats, especially Groucho (shown here) love to help in the garden!
Put on the rubber gloves and open up the zip lock bag. I use zip closure bags because once the caterpillars and tents are removed, I zip them into the bag and place them in the trash so they can't get out again. If you just remove them from the tree and throw them on the ground, they will crawl right back up.
Here's why you need rubber gloves: use your fingers and brush the silken tent into the bag. You can use the rock to scrape the caterpillars off the bark, or use your fingers. Get them all and push them into the bag. Any that remain will simply start over again. When you're done, make sure they are all off of your rubber gloves and in the bag. Seal the bag and place it in the trash.
Here are the insects and web sealed in my bag before I placed the bag in the trash.
Done! Rinse off your rubber gloves and put them back in the house, throw away the bag of bugs, and enjoy the pretty peach blossoms. In a few short months, with the help of friendly local bees, you should have lovely peaches to harvest!

Jeanne Grunert
Want more details about this and other DIY projects? Check out my blog post!

Frequently asked questions

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  2 questions
  • Nita Harrison Nita Harrison on Mar 27, 2016
    Any thoughts on how to capture these creatures higher up in the tree? I get so frustrated watching them take over almost full branches but I cannot reach them. I have sprayed bug spray at them hoping some of the droplets will hit the higher up target but that only seems to encourage the rapidity of their growth. I honestly think they must be swaying in their "tent" laughing at my bungling ways of removing them.

  • Rocki Rocki on Apr 05, 2016
    Would hosing the worms with a soapy water solution make them go away?


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2 of 18 comments
  • Candy Shields Candy Shields on Mar 30, 2016
    At least you are saving the tree and all the trees around it. You need to "nip this in the bud" before the tent worms get all of them!

  • Mjn33407239 Mjn33407239 on May 12, 2018

    I've been dealing with tent caterpillars for 50 years or more. We always either used a propane torch to burn them, being careful not to linger on the tree branches more than a second or two, or took a stick, disconnected the tent and squashed the caterpillars on the ground once they fell. Only the squeamish need rubber gloves and plastic bags. These things don't carry any diseases or bite people. A few caterpillar guts won't hurt you.