With armored bodies or weapon-shaped limbs, they look like creatures from an unfriendly alien world – or a blockbuster movie. But their damage is very real. Seemingly out of nowhere, they invade to suck the joy out of our tranquil summer harvest.
It’s the Invasion of the Bad Bugs.
This summer, two notorious critters are reappearing in Sacramento area vegetable gardens: the brown marmorated stink bug and the leaffooted bug. It’s bad news for tomato and fruit lovers.
“People are finding them,” reported Chuck Ingels, Sacramento County farm and horticulture adviser for the UC Cooperative Extension. “We haven’t seen many really bad reports yet, but it’s only early August. They hit hardest in late August and September. They’re probably still coming.”
The University of California recently posted new pest notes devoted to the control of both bugs with downloadable tip sheets. (Find them at ipm.ucdavis.edu.)
Some of us first met these little evil-doers last year when the stink bugs started popping up in midtown Sacramento and the aptly named leaffooted bugs (their triangular hind appendages resemble leaves) scrambled out of woodpiles to feast on ripening tomatoes all over town.
At Sacramento’s Fremont Community Garden, the stink bugs reappeared in April. They totaled fava beans, wiped out cherries and ripped through sunflowers. They massed on apricots and covered the fruit with tell-tale stings.
“The peaches were totally decimated,” said Ingels, who has been monitoring Fremont closely. “The Asian pears are all lumpy; they’ll be completely inedible. Anything with a fruit or a pod, they go after.”
On its website, the Cooperative Extension tracks the brown marmorated stink bug, which had been unknown in Sacramento before its appearance last September. Shaped like a shield with white markings on its legs and antennae, this bug measures about 5/8 inch long. It is slightly larger than the more common consperse stink bug, which attacks pears, peaches and other fruit trees.
“Citrus Heights has become increasingly hot for brown marmorated stink bugs,” Ingels said. “We’re getting reports almost daily. It will be the next major infestation center. We’re also seeing them in the Pocket area (of Sacramento), north Howe Avenue near Howe Community Park, near the UC Davis Medical Center and Old Sacramento. We had one confirmed sighting in Elk Grove.”
Leaffooted bugs have been much more widespread. They’ve shown up at the master gardeners’ Fair Oaks Horticulture Center in Fair Oaks Park. Any gardener with a lot of tomatoes can expect a visit. They also love pomegranates.
“They were hit and miss last summer; they didn’t seem concentrated in one particular place,” Ingels said. “Some people lost their entire tomato crop.”
Both these pests attack the same way: They stick their strawlike mouth parts into a nice juicy tomato and suck out as much juice as possible. Pesticides seem to have little effect on them.
“The damage from one or two wouldn’t be that bad,” Ingels said, “but unfortunately they attack in large numbers.”
Retired entomologist and lifelong horticulturist Baldo Villegas of Orangevale has been getting lots of questions about both bugs.
“Leaffooted bugs are becoming quite prevalent in our area in a variety of plants,” Villegas said recently. “I used to think that they were very specific for certain plants, but in the past few years I have seen them on roses, pomegranates, tomatoes and other plants.
“If you see one, there are usually others as the females lay masses of eggs on host plants such as tomatoes, pomegranates, pistachios, etc.,” he said. “The eggs are golden in color and are grouped together. If I see them, I squish them.”
“If I see the immature bugs, I also try to squish them or drop them in soapy water,” Villegas added. “I do the same for adults.”
Almost an inch in size, the leaffooted bugs are slow and relatively easy to catch. Only the mature adults can fly.
“Catching them can be challenging,” Ingels said. “They tend to retreat into the foliage, and tomato plants can get pretty dense.”
The best method to clean them up? Get a vacuum.
“It’s got to be dedicated to just this purpose, but a small handheld vacuum works on both bugs,” Ingels said. “Use an upholstery attachment so you don’t damage the fruit; be careful around the foliage, too. A shop vac is a little too strong, but it will do the job, too.”
You can blast them off plants with a strong stream of water from the hose – especially the young ones.
Stink bugs and leaffooted bugs also can be captured by hand, but wear gloves, especially with the stink bugs. As their name implies, they emit an awful odor.
Gardeners may protect their tomatoes with row covers or fine netting, Ingels suggested. But it only works if the cover is in place before the first bugs appear.
“Once you’ve seen them, it’s probably too late,” he said. “They’ll reproduce inside your netting.”
If gardeners see these bugs, Ingels and other experts would like to know as they continue to track infestations. To report a sighting, take a photo of the bug and, if possible, capture a specimen. Drop it in a jar of alcohol to preserve it and contact your county’s UC cooperative extension office. In Sacramento County, click on http://ucanr.edu/sites/sacmg/ and follow the links for reporting. Gardeners also can view the map of confirmed stink bug sightings at that website.