Summer is in full swing, and gardens are blooming, producing a bounty of food for insects to feed on. Before you know what corrective measure to take, the biggest challenge can be trying to identify just exactly what pest you are dealing with. The first thing to look for is damage. Are there obvious holes in the leaves? Are there visible bugs? Do the plants look yellowish, wilted, or just plain sick? These are all signs that something is wrong, and you might have some unwanted guests.
If there are large holes missing from leaves, then it is a larger insect causing damage. It could be grasshoppers, earwigs, caterpillars, slugs, snails, cucumber beetles, or a nearly endless list of large insects. They typically feed on big chunks of leaves at a time, leaving very noticeable holes. Caterpillars often leave large black dots of fecal matter as they feed and can devour entire leaves in a matter of hours.
Slugs and snails leave their shiny slime trails everywhere they go. Many pests will hide during the day and come out at night to feed, so if you don’t see anything try going out at night with a flashlight. You might be amazed at the amount of life you see roaming your plants in the dark.
If your plants look sick, wilted, some (or all) of the leaves are yellowing, you might have smaller insects sucking precious sap. They can be very difficult to see. Use a high-quality magnifying glass (10x or stronger) and look over the leaves. Pay special attention to the underside where a lot of pests like to hide. Look closely along the veins. There are several pests that are nearly microscopic and happily feed on the plant juices and tissues. If the plants look particularly wilted and you can’t find anything on the leaves, it’s possible you have something attacking the roots. Fungus gnats, cranefly, and many other insects have a larval stage that lives in the soil and feeds on fine root hairs. Their larvae can be hard to identify, so you might have to wait until you see an adult to get a proper identification.
Once you see the pest, how do you go about identifying it and ultimately eliminating it? The internet is full of useful information on nearly any insect you find in your garden. You can use common search engines with terms like beetle on a cucumber, or small white flying insect on basil. Google Images is one of my favorite places to search for bugs. If you type in spider mite, whitefly, or just about any insect, you immediately get multiple pictures you can compare to your insect and help make a positive identification. This guide identifies common pests and gives you instructions on how to eliminate them.
Many counties have a local extension service that trains master gardeners. They have a lot of information on the insects both good and bad that are in your area. You can take them a sample of your leaves and any bugs you have that need to be identified. Local garden centers might have helpful staff on hand that can help with identification as well. Once you know what pest you are dealing with you can search the internet for terms like spider mite controls, thrips controls, organic aphid controls. Many sites will give advice and practical controls. There are also a lot of plant-oriented forums that cover topics such as pest control. University websites are a particularly good source for both identification and treatments. In this age of technology there is a wealth of information at your fingertips.
Nathan Jackson is the owner of Nature’s Control and Ladybug Indoor Gardens. You can send your specific bug questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information visit NaturesControl.com or call 541.245.6033.