When Ladybugs Go Bad!

Growing up I was thrilled to get a visit in the garden from both the red and the yellow ladybugs. The red ladybugs were always the first to visit. They would arrive in early spring. The yellow ladybugs always came much later, late spring or early summer. Where the red ladybugs were rather slow and easy to catch, the yellow ladybugs were fast and wily. When I would sneak up on them,
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they would quickly dash to the underside of the leaf or drop to the ground. Catching one was quite rare and this made them a very special prize.

Somewhere along the way from naive child to adult, however, I learned the sad, horrible truth about the “yellow ladybugs.” They weren’t ladybugs at all. Unlike their slow moving beneficial cousins, these beetles were actually garden thugs and something you hoped never to see. The yellow ladybug is actually a spotted cucumber beetle (Diabrotica). Named after the crop it does the most damage to, these nasty little bugs will chew holes in leaves, fruit and flower petals and they really love yellow flowers. Although the holes are small and the damage to leaves is not great from one or two, several can really mar the beauty of dahlias or sunflowers. They can also scar the fruit of cucumbers and melons on the underside while it’s young sometimes causing it to rot.

Yesterday I noticed some holes in the leaves of my poor fava beans. (Remember their aphid infestation a month ago?) When I examined the damage, I saw a tiny yellow beetle scamper underneath. Now I’m not too worried about the fava beans at this point. They are pretty much done producing and are about to be tilled into the soil. But nearby I’ve planted some squash and when those large yellow flowers bloom, it’s like ringing a dinner bell for this bug. So I grabbed a bucket of soapy water and set out to dispatch some beetles. Although you can use Sevin dust for these guys, I like to keep it organic and spraying with soapy water or Neem doesn’t really work all that well. This was going to be a hands on (with gloves of course) job. I have found that they are almost impossible to squish and that rolling them  between my fingers and flicking them into the soapy water seems to work best. You have to work fast and because they do tend to scatter. Once I’m sure they have either been crushed or drown, I pour the bucket of water near the plants as a warning to their brethren. “Come here and this is your fate you nasty bugs”, I whisper. I don’t know if it works, but on some primal level, I feel better.

My second line of defense is the birds. So I refilled the suet feeder that hangs near that part of the garden. Normally I feed the birds further up in the yard while I’m starting seeds so they don’t get any ideas. But now I want to actually attract them to that area. It takes less than an hour with the inquisitive jays to have a whole bunch of birds flocking to the feeder. Even if they don’t eat the beetles, I know those beetles will be shaking in their beetle boots and will hopefully find another place to graze.

So be on the lookout for these ladybugs gone bad. They are out and about and looking for your flowers. If your infestations are bad, you can plan on using crop covers to keep them out in future seasons. If you have an ongoing problem with them, incorporating a trap crop (a crop that they find irresistible planted away from your desirable plants that gets sacrificed to the bugs) like marigolds into your gardening plans. I’ve even heard of folks sucking them up with a shop vac. If you decide to use Sevin, make sure to read the label to determine how many days you need to wait to harvest a particular fruit or vegetable. Me, I’ll be drowning their little beetle butts and scattering their carcases as a warning. Sometimes gardening is not all sunshine and roses. Sometimes, it’s war!

Diabrotica image by  Pollinator used under Creative Commons licensing.

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