By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Flea beetles are small but destructive pests in the home landscape. You have likely seen their damage in the tiny holes scattered across your prized hosta or ornamental kale. There are many varieties of the insect, which attack a wide range of vegetation. Flea beetle control is an ongoing battle that relies upon three levels of approach. Control of flea beetles naturally starts with consistent cultural practices, physical barriers, and even biological methods.
Knowledge of your enemy is the first key to flea beetle control. The insects are small beetle-type pests that hop when disturbed. The larvae overwinter in the garden and become adults in spring. There may be up to two generations of the tiny shiny beetles per year. Some varieties are striped or spotted and may be brown, tan, and black.
It is easier to prevent the damage rather than to kill flea beetles unless you resort to chemical controls. Control of flea beetles naturally is preferable, especially in the vegetable garden where the insects do the most damage.
Physical barriers such as row covers are safe and easy methods of controlling flea beetles. These prevent the insects from jumping onto the leaves and munching away on the foliage. You can also use a layer of thick mulch around plants to limit the insect’s transformation in the soil from larvae to adult. This provides a non-toxic pre-season way to control flea beetles naturally. For more permanent control, it is necessary to kill flea beetles.
The most reliable method on how to get rid of flea beetles is with an insecticidal dust. Naturally derived spinosad and permethrin are two control agents that can provide some assistance in eradicating the beetles. Consistent applications are necessary because of the mobility of the pests. Any insecticidal product that contains carabyl or bifenthrin will also give adequate control when applied at the rates and times recommended by the product manufacturer.
If chemical control is not your cup of tea and covering the crop is not an option, try repellent formulations. Flea beetles are most active in spring when adults emerge and their feeding can severely damage seedling plants. Diatomaceous earth is safe for pets, children, and most beneficial insects, but will repel most flea beetles. Neem oil and some horticultural oils are also effective at repelling flea beetles.
Cultural control is the key to killing flea beetles. The larvae overwinter in soil and can be destroyed during regular hoeing and cultivating. Remove all old debris from the previous crops and prevent weeds, which are an important early season food for flea beetle larvae. Without cover and food supplies, the larva will starve. Early season flea beetle control will kill most of the pests and physical barriers, or even sticky traps, can take care of most of the remaining pests.
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Steph is a certified Square Food Gardening Instructor who has been gardening for more than 10 years in Canada where the winters are long and cold, and the summers are unpredictable. She is a volunteer for her community's Incredible Edible project. In the past she created an educational gardening space for seniors and taught classes at a local community center where she created her own curriculum and activities. She participated in several local municipal garden days where she set up a booth to educate citizens about the joy of gardening.
Each year it seems like a whole new type of bug decides to move into my garden. I’ve become well-acquainted with the many varieties of nasty insects that can wreak havoc on plants – including flea beetles.
Being able to identify bugs is the first and most crucial step in getting rid of them. Thankfully, some are easier to spot than others. Flea beetles are a lot less sneaky than other ugly garden critters.
Want to find out more about this annoying garden pest? Read on to find out what they are and how to stop them in their tracks should you discover an infestation.
I'm having a problem with flea beetles on one variety of my flower plants. I know this is the veggie forum, but I'm hoping there's someone with knowledge regarding these pests. They have made swiss cheese of my cleomes and I don't know what to use on them. I have never experienced this before. The bugs are tiny and black and they jump when you try to squish them. BTW, I posted this topic on the Garden Pests and Diseases forum, but no answers so far. Can you help a girl out?
Here's a pic of the leaves.
You can sprinkle rotenone on them sometimes you have to apply it more than once but it usually does the trick. Good luck!
Thanks for the reply greenhouse_gal, I'll see what I can find in the store. Is Rotenone still available or has it been banned? I guess I shouldn't complain b/c the cleomes are acting like a trap crop in that none of my tomatoes or peppers have any signs of the beetles. They are only on those particular plants. I wonder if they came from the grower? Anyway, the plants are growing and thriving so maybe they'll be okay.
Rotenone is generally considered organic, although we use it as little as possible. It's still available as far as I know. Funny that the flea beetles prefer your cleomes to your other plants. I've never had flea beetles on my tomatoes or peppers it's the eggplant that they seem to attack here. Someone just said that past a certain window of time they won't trouble eggplant, and since I just planted mine, finally having room for it, I'm hoping that I've escaped the flea beetle scourge.
I don't think you'd get a flea beetle infestation from a grower. The critters seem to be out there and are magically drawn to your garden when you plant their favorite meal.
I must have some twisted flea beetles b/c they think the cleomes are just yummy!
If I but had cleomes, my flea beetles might cruelly desert my veggies too. Who knows!
toni, I use talcum powder on my plants for flea beetles. It works as a pretty good repellent and is inexpensive (Dollar Store). You'll have to reapply it on an as-needed basis but that's usually not a big deal.
As for rotenone, although it is considered "organic" many organic growers will not use it anymore due to the research done showing it's direct relation to possible affects and contribution to Parkinson's disease symptoms. In addition it is a broad spectrum killer, zapping your beneficial bugs as well. Why not use something a bit tamer?
Many folks use pyrethrin if they have a terrible outbreak of flea beetles. It, too, is a broad spectrum killer. However, keep in mind if you are only spraying it on a few cleome leaves then I doubt you will be zapping many other bugs. Of course now, if it were me I'd go with the talc, or even wood ash if you have any. After all, as GH-gal says, many plants will outgrow flea beetles and you may get away w/out using anything at all.
Horseshoe, thank you so much for the tip on talcum powder. I am having one of my strangest gardening years so far regarding insects and diseases. It's getting costly just trying to keep a small garden. I'm pretty much organic in that I use compost and Espoma granular fertilizer and I've never had to resort to insecticides until this year with the roses and cleomes of all plants. I have some talcum so I'll powder their sweet little bottoms tomorrow!
Horseshoe, does the talcum work on Colorado potato beetles, too? I had to apply some rotenone to a few of my tomato plants because they were getting infested, but I'd much rather not use it if possible.
gh-gal, I've never tried talc on potato beetles but have dusted my plants with rye or wheat bran meal quite a few times. When the tater bugs are still in their larvae stage they eat the rye/wheat and it expands inside them, "blowing them up", so to speak
One they are in the hardshell stage (adults) you'll need to either hand-pick or go to Pyrethrin to keep heavy infestations down. Pyola might be one of the safer choices, being a combination of canola oil and pyrethrin.
Bt var tenibrionis (sp. maybe it's tenebrionis) is fairly safe but, again, tends to only work on the larvae.
It might be worth a try with the talc, eh? If you see the larvae and dust them perhaps it'll dry them out.
Thanks, Horseshoe! It's not a real infestation and there are so few larvae that I can just squish 'em when I see 'em, but I'll keep the rye or wheat bran meal in mind. Where do you get it, though?
I just picked up a big bottle of talcum powder at the dollar store with the potatoes in mind. I treated them earlier this week with spinosad and it seemed to keep them away for a couple of days but they are back. 8-(
It may be of interest to consider that my eggplants are untouched. After reading somewhere on here, I think, about dill being a good flea beetle deterrent, I sowed a couple of seeds near mine. The dill is barely a couple of inches tall so I'm quite hesitant to conclude that it's had any effect at all. yet. there they are, a couple of feet away from the flea-beetle-(I hate to say "infested" -- more like "snacked on")-potato crop.
Another interesting tidbit? There's a potato coming up in my eggplant bed. I wonder if the dill has anything to do with that? Most likely I just dropped a seed spud at some point, but wouldn't that be kind of cool if it sought out it's own protection?
Help, dill, help! I'm being threatened by flea beetles! Can I hide out here.
I went out this morning thinking about baby powder and flea beetles, and actually couldn't find any. Not one. I'm sure there's got to be some out there, but I'm kind of happy about this turn of events. 8-)
I did a general Google search for flea beetle weapons and I found a lot of testimony that the new focussed Spinosad works, although it is not listed on the label. I'm trying it on my very heavily attacked veggie garden. I hope it works as it works via eating while pyrethrins have to hit the bug. That means you have to go out and spray every day. Has anyone else tried spinosad.
I used spinosad about a week and a half ago on my chewed up spuds. No flea beetles today.
I just replied to Las14 on the Garden Pests and Diseases forum about an ad for a product named Bonide Captain Jack's Deadbug Brew which contains Spinosad. I will copy my reply here.
I just got my July/August issue of Chicagoland Gardening magazine and there's an ad for Bonide's Captain Jack's Deadbug Brew which contains Spinosad "a compound first isolated from a naturally occurring soil dwelling bacterium that was collected on a Caribbean island from an abandoned rum distillery in 1982."
The ad also states "DEADBUG BREW kills bagworms, borers, beetles, caterpillars, codling moth, gypsy moth, loopers, leaf miners, spider mites, tent caterpillars, thrips and more!"
"Use on fruits, vegetables, berries, citrus, grapes, nuts and ornamentals."
There's a free App download at bonide.com
I was also advised on the Vegetable forum that plain ole talcum powder is also effective in treating for flea beetles. Also Pyola (Pyrethrin w/canola oil) is a stronger, yet organic(?) alternative.
We just had a storm blow through here with 75 mile an hour winds so I'm hoping it blew those darn flea beetles outta here!
Flea beetles have a typical life cycle.
Flea beetles have a similar life cycle to any other common garden beetle.
The adults will overwinter in dense vegetation and wooded areas.
When the spring comes around, they’ll mate as they’re active during this time. The adult females will seek out an area to lay single eggs or clusters, depending on the species.
They usually deposit their eggs within the soil, roots, or small holes found in the soil. Some species will also lay eggs on plant leaves or flowers. They’ve been seen in shrubs and trees.
As you can see, there are MANY different types of species each with their own behaviors and habitats.
After a few weeks, the larvae will emerge from the eggs and feed on the roots of young plants. This poses a serious threat to seedling plants because they’re extremely vulnerable during this part of their growth. Sadly, many people plant during this time because it’s planting season. And these beetle nymphs are out to ruin the harvest.
The larvae continue to feed on the roots and you’ll notice that the plant will wilt, turn brown, or have stunted growth. You can dig up the roots and look for the beetle larvae under the soil.
They look like white worms similar to grubs or maggots. They curl up to “C” shape when disturbed.
Soon, the larvae will undergo pupation and transform into an adult flea beetle. This happens under the soil so you won’t see them at all. The adults emerge from the soil and continue the life cycle.
During this time, adult beetles are above the surface and will eat the leaves of plants. They leave behind holes that are irregular in shape and randomly scattered all over the plant. This Is the most common sign of flea beetles.
The larvae are black shielded worms with a lighter head that’s spotted. They look like any other beetle larvae and will be found dwelling in the soil.
You can identify them by looking for these physical features:
You can also flea beetle larvae to see them in macro shots so you can identify them more accurately.
Many different species of flea beetles attack garden plants in the United States. Some types are selective and only go after certain plant families, but others feed on all types of vegetables, fruits and ornamentals. Seedlings, young transplants and tender new growth are favorite targets of these voracious pests. Flea beetles can also spread plant diseases, including blight and bacterial wilt. They prefer feeding in bright, sunny locations.
Identification: Depending on the species, adult flea beetles measure between 1/16 and 1/4 inch long. Many flea beetles common to vegetable gardens are dark and shiny. However, these pests come in black, metallic green or blue, brown, bronze or even striped. All have powerful hind legs and jump – like fleas – when disturbed. Their thin, white, wormlike larvae grow 1/8 to 1/3 inch long.
Signs/Damage: Flea beetle larvae hatch from eggs laid at the soil surface and feed on plant roots. Their main damage is to root crops or tubers such as potatoes. Adult beetles chew multiple small holes throughout plant leaves, resulting in distinctive shot-hole damage.
Control: Effective flea beetle treatment starts early in the season, as soon as seedlings break ground. GardenTech ® brand offers several highly effective options to kill flea beetles by contact and keep protecting for up to three months+. These products can be used on many flea beetle favorites, including tomatoes, eggplants, cabbages and potatoes, right up to one day before harvest*:
Tip: Flea beetles overwinter under leaves, weeds and garden debris. Clean your gardens well at the end of the season and you'll have fewer flea beetle problems the next year.
*Always read product labels and follow the instructions carefully, including required pre-harvest intervals for edible crops.
+These products provide up to 3 month control on all listed insects except ticks.
GardenTech is a registered trademark of Gulfstream Home and Garden, Inc.
Sevin is a registered trademark of Tessenderlo Kerley, Inc. Who would have guessed that these tiny little beetles could cause such a fuss? They sleep in your garden all winter, only to emerge and wreak havoc on your potatoes and broccoli (and their relatives!), shot-holing and furrowing their way through all your hard work. Well, there’s bad news for the flea beetles everywhere, now that you’ve learned their plan of attack. Put on your scout cap, and get to work identifying and tackling these pests, utilizing the cultural, biological, and (only if absolutely necessary!) chemical tools that we’ve covered in this article. What about you? How have you been able to defeat flea beetles? Let us know in the comments below or feel free to ask questions about prevention and control! And for more information about protecting your garden from insect pests, check out these guides next: © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photos via Arbico Organics, BotaniGard, and Bug Sales. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock. Alexis Morin is an avid gardener who resides on and manages a horse ranch in north Texas. She holds a BA in English literature with a minor in horticultural sciences from Clemson University, and she loves to read, write, and garden. If Alexis is not in a pasture learning the names of all the growing green things, you can find her in her garden growing fruit, veggies, and flowers. Alexis once managed a sizable CSA operation in Valley Center, Kansas, and her specialization is in growing high quality organic vegetables. She believes that soil, like food, brings people together!
Put on Your Scout Cap!
About Alexis Morin
Who would have guessed that these tiny little beetles could cause such a fuss?
They sleep in your garden all winter, only to emerge and wreak havoc on your potatoes and broccoli (and their relatives!), shot-holing and furrowing their way through all your hard work.
Well, there’s bad news for the flea beetles everywhere, now that you’ve learned their plan of attack.
Put on your scout cap, and get to work identifying and tackling these pests, utilizing the cultural, biological, and (only if absolutely necessary!) chemical tools that we’ve covered in this article.
What about you? How have you been able to defeat flea beetles? Let us know in the comments below or feel free to ask questions about prevention and control!
And for more information about protecting your garden from insect pests, check out these guides next:
© Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photos via Arbico Organics, BotaniGard, and Bug Sales. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.
Alexis Morin is an avid gardener who resides on and manages a horse ranch in north Texas. She holds a BA in English literature with a minor in horticultural sciences from Clemson University, and she loves to read, write, and garden. If Alexis is not in a pasture learning the names of all the growing green things, you can find her in her garden growing fruit, veggies, and flowers. Alexis once managed a sizable CSA operation in Valley Center, Kansas, and her specialization is in growing high quality organic vegetables. She believes that soil, like food, brings people together!