NC State Extension Publications

Description and Biology

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The variegated cutworm, Peridroma saucia, is the immature stage of the pearly underwing moth. These moths have dark, mottled, reddish brown to grayish mottled wings. Their wingspans vary from 13/4 to 2 inches. The hind wings are pale but gradually darken at the edges and are considered "pearly." At night, each female lays dozens of eggs (up to 360 or even 500!) in a mass on stems and foliage. The eggs are tiny, round, and white when first laid but darken before the tiny caterpillars hatch three to five days later. The newly hatched caterpillars are tiny and consume very small amounts of foliage. As they molt and grow each stage consumes an exponential greater amount of foliage. Mature caterpillars appear bare, are usually fat, and are smooth, dull, and mottled. Some have four to six or seven pale spots down the middle of the back. They grow to about 11/2 to 2 inches long, and they curl up when disturbed. Variegated cutworms feed for three to four weeks usually by cutting young plants at the soil line at night and feeding on wilted foliage, which they sometimes drag into a shelter. These cutworms are active at night and usually hide during the day. When mature, variegated cutworms burrow into the soil to pupate. Pupae are brown and spindle shaped and 5/8 to 7/8 inch long. Two (summer) to nine weeks later (fall) new moths emerge to mate, lay eggs, and continue the wheel of existence. They overwinter in soil as mature caterpillars or pupae. We have three to four generations per year in North Carolina.

Variegated cutworm moths

Variegated cutworm moths are called pearly underwing moths.

Pearly underwing moth

Pearly underwing moths are highly variable in color and markings.

Variegated cutworm eggs

Variegated cutworm eggs are pale at first but darken as they mature.

Variegated cutworm

Variegated cutworms curl up when disturbed.

variegated cutworms

These variegated cutworms are reddish-brown.

Variegated cutworm pupa

Variegated cutworm pupae are found in the soil.

Host Plants

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Variegated cutworms are pests of a wide variety of ornamental plants including aster, carnation, chrsanthemum, dahlia, gladiolus, marigold, nasturtuium, pansy, petunia, rose, violet, and zinnia. They are a pest of vegetable, fruit, and field crops as well. Variegated cutworms often cut young plants near the soil line and feed on wilted foliage. When plants are too large to cut, they climb and feed on foliage, buds, flowers, and even bore into fruits.

variegated cutworms climb up

When a plant is too tough to cut off, variegated cutworms climb up to feed on softer plant parts.

Residential Recommendations

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Removal of debris should expose the cutworms to predators and parasites. Because variegated cutworms have diverse host plants including many weed species that are never sprayed with insecticides, this species is susceptible to most insecticides available in the garden section of most big box stores, nurseries and other plant centers.

Variegated cutworms may crawl

Variegated cutworms may crawl about looking for plants to feed on.

Other Resources

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For assistance with a specific problem, contact your local N.C. Cooperative Extension center.

This factsheet has not been peer reviewed.


Professor Emeritus
Entomology & Plant Pathology

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Publication date: Feb. 26, 2019
Revised: Oct. 18, 2019

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