Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Everybody eats...

Alternately:  Why it is important to know what's what in your garden spaces

Recently, while obsessively stalking sphinx moth caterpillars happily munching on the stems, blooms and even seed heads of my Pink Evening Primrose plants, (Oenothera speciosa) I spotted and grabbed a quick shot of what I thought was some sort of beetle.

"Hey - that's pretty" I thought.  The teeny beetle promptly jumped off the leaf to the ground and disappeared from sight.  I didn't give it another thought.

Later the next day I noticed a second bout of leaf damage to the Four-o-Clocks emerging out front.  The day before I'd looked for insects as a cause but hadn't found any so I'd just pinched off and removed the damaged parts.  This time I not only found more damaged leaves, but I spotted another one of those "pretty" beetles sitting on a leaf nearby.

"Hmmmm," I thought to myself, "this could be a total coincidence. I wonder if the beetles I'm seeing are actually causing the damage to these plants?  Maybe they're just here hunting the true culprits.  I've gotta find out what these are!".

Thus began yet another quest to identify garden UFOs.

In my mind, most bugs turn out to be some kind of beetle. I promptly turned to all the "help identify your beetle" pages I could find.  I scrolled fruitlessly through dozens of photos with nary a match.

Having strained my eyes and my patience both, I turned to the professionals.  I sent in a couple of photos to the helpful folk who run the identification request service at BugGuide.net.  I had my answer in under 20 minutes.  The reason I wasn't finding a match on any of the beetle pages was quite simple.  This guy isn't a beetle.

Meet the Four Lined Plant Bug.

Despite their very attractive appearance, four lined plant bugs are bad players.  While they rarely kill a plant outright, they typically cause considerable unsightly damage. If left to their own devices, four lined plant bugs will set up shop, laying eggs to over winter in the leaf litter around a plant, re-emerging every spring to wreak havoc.

The damage shown below is typical of the aftermath of a four lined plant bug feast.  Their saliva liquidizes plant matter which they suck out, leaving a sunken depression behind or in some cases, a hole right through the leaf.
Yeeikes, right?  I don't kill bugs "just because" but these little fellas are known to keep moving around a garden bed.  In some cases reported nearly every plant was damaged to varying extent.  This means war!

Is it speciesism on my part to allow the sphinx moth larvae to feed unmolested while I am out to eliminate the four lined leaf bugs?  Ummm, sort of?  I justify my decision thusly:Sphinx moth adults don't feed on plants, and their larvae only feed on particular host plants as part of their growth cycle.  The four lined leaf bugs cause damage as nymphs and adults, feeding on multiple plant families interchangeably.

I'm determined to keep these pests and their unsightly damage to the bare minimum but I'm not willing to use chemicals. Unfortunately, I didn't find any reports of natural enemies to deploy as countermeasure. My current plan is to go out several times daily, taking along a small container filled with very soapy water.  Whenever I spot a four lined plant bug on a leaf, rather than trying to capture and squash it with my fingers (super organic but also super gross) I'll tap the stalk of the plant to knock the offending bug into the soapy water where it should promptly sink to the bottom and drown.

My kill count so far is five adults and a couple of nymphs who all met their end with extreme soapjudice.  I doubt I'll be able to locate and eliminate every single one of these damaging bugs, but I hope to keep their population low and the harm they do to the bare minimum.

Hey!  In my buggy obsession I almost forgot.  Happy Earth Day y'all!



Debra said...

oh noes. I had an infestation of these a few years ago and it was TOUGH going to get rid of them. No joke. As soon as I saw the picture I knew who it was. I did what you are doing: tap them to fall into the water. I didn't see them later in the year so foolishly I thought I won. Nope. They came back the next spring. So that year after the tapping I did an OBSESSIVE fall cleanup in that area. That did the trick. They will overwinter in duff and the top few inches of stems. I wish you the very best of luck.

TexasDeb said...

I accept all your best wishes! I do indeed plan on taking out leaf litter (as best I can) around the plants that seem infested. I've read they are only active until June then reappear the next spring, so I realize if I stop seeing them it is because they are laying in wait. Aaargh. Fist to sky:Bugs!

Tina said...

I've had those guys visit too and in spite of their attractiveness, your solution of soapy water is a good one. I'm impressed with those photos--especially the first one of Mr. Bad Bug.

TexasDeb said...

Tina: Mr. Good Lookin' Bad Bug seems to be winning the fray to date. I've had little success knocking more bugs into my soapy water - it seems the ones that are left are faster to jump away. I'll have to clear out the leaf litter under these plants as they over winter and hope that helps!