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Rose chafer beetles at work. Photo: <a href="">Jason Sturner</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Rose chafer beetles at work. Photo: Jason Sturner, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

First the blooms, then the bugs

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Aren't the peonies lovely? And the first roses to bloom so pretty and fragrant? Along with the iris and the first day lilies, they give gardeners an early-summer shot of color and satisfaction after lots of hard work.

They also attract the first big wave of pests, including some of the most frustrating and difficult to deal with: rose chafers, flea beetles, and potato beetles. Brace yourself, as she so often does, cooperative extension's Amy Ivy says hand picking is the best remedy for the rose chafers and potato bugs.

No pesticides for rose chafers, because they attack the flower's blooms, and to dose the bloom would kill the bees and other valuable pollinators. And potato beetles? It's just more efficient to squish the eggs before they hatch on the underside of the leaves.

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Reported by

Martha Foley
News and Public Affairs Director

Martha Foley: So the flower season is really, really kicking in. It’s so lovely—lilies, iris, now peonies and roses. And so that means the pests are kicking in as well. Amy Ivy is horticulturist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service of Clinton and Essex Countyies. Good morning, Amy.

Amy Ivy:  Good morning, Martha

MF: So, you bet, the peonies and the roses and rose chafers, yay!

AI: Yeah, I know. You can almost tell what the time of year by which bugs are coming out. It’s a good calendar to use.

MF: It is a good calendar to use. They’re not the only ones- I think that rose chafers are one of the more egregious pests that we deal with because they’re so in the flower, they really kind of ruin the experience as opposed to just kind of hurting the plant or being a pest. 

AI: Yeah if they would just nibble on a leave or two it wouldn’t be so bad.

MF: But they’re in all the pedals.

AI: And oh I forgot the lily leaf beetle, I forgot to add that to our list of egregious pests right now too. 

MF: Lily leaf beetle? What does that one do?

AI: That is a bright red beetle that has been around for a few years now. The only good thing is, it only gets true lilies. Tiger lilies, things that come from a bulb; asiatic, oriental, and tiger lilies. And it does the same thing; it eats the flower buds, darnit, but it also eats all the leaves. It’s really a bad one too. All these different ones are coming out right about now, so it’s good to keep your eyes peeled.

MF: One of my beautiful—you know I think it’s a stargazy one, of those gorgeous, fragrant lilies—the deer!

AI: Oh yeah, the deer will get those too; that’s another bug!

MF: Totally gone—

AI: Like a really big bug. 

MF: Yeah like a really big bug, with a really big bite. Anyway, back to the little things.

AI: Okay, so rose chafers—now a lot of people—either you know it, or you don’t know it. And if you don’t know it, be really happy. That means you don’t have it. if you had it you would know it, unfortunately. It can be terrible. It comes out all at once. I got the first call yesterday and now I know our office is going to be full of people for the next two weeks. The good thing about the rose chafer is it doesn’t stay very long. It’s only out for about—the adult—for two maybe three weeks.

MF: But that’s just plenty of time, because that’s when the peonies are blossoming and it gets in the peonies.

AI: Exactly, and it can completely ruin your peonies show for the year. It doesn’t kill the plant, it messes up the whole reason you grow peonies in the first place. And because it’s in the flower, that makes it especially challenging, too, because there really isn’t anything chemical you can do. Anything you do there is going to be affecting the bees as well, and we all know, we need to protect the bees. You just cannot apply a pesticide into a blossom.

MF: So let me just review what they look like. They’re little khaki colored beetle and they just fly around, running into your laundry, and yourself...

AI: Yeah, they fly, but a lot of times most people will notice them also just perched on the plant. They tend to appear in aggregates. Rarely you do see one. Usually you’ll see two mating—they’re always mating—and usually they’re in clumps of eight or 10, quite a few. They do significant damage very quickly, within days. So they definitely get your attention because you’re out looking at your beautiful flowers and one day they’re fine and the next day they’re full of these beetles.

MF: So what can you do, anything? Do they knock off the plant?

AI: I hate to say it, and I know it discourages people, but especially because they’re in the flower and this is home gardening; hand picking. I know people hate to hear that, but if you’re diligent and if you know your peonies —mine are still in bud, mine haven’t quite opened yet. I don’t have rose chafer here yet, but I’m sure it won’t be long. I would be at the ready.

If we could review the hand picking thing, I use a quart-size yogurt container. I like that tallness and it’s easy to hold onto; I can get a good grip on it. Put water in it and just a couple drops of dish soap, and that just breaks the surface tension. You hold it under the plant, under where these bugs are clustering and just knock them off. Because when they’re startled, their instinct is to drop. So you put this cup underneath and you startle them and they drop into your soapy water where they drown. The soap doesn’t kill them, they drown and the soap lets them sink to the bottom of the cup. 

MF: That’s the rose chafers, a lot of things that will soon be coming to your flower garden. You want to talk about potato beetles and flea beetles as well.

AI: Yeah and flea beetles; that is one that mainly gets, it also gets on beans, but mostly it gets on the brassicas. So that’s broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale. They especially love any of the Chinese cabbages like bok choy, and just regular old Chinese cabbage too. Arugula, all the members of the mustard family as well as the mustard weeds too.

MF: What do they do?

AI: They make little tiny perfect shot holes and they are little tiny bugs. They’re about as big as two poppy seeds and when you go to touch it they hop away like a flea. But they’re not a flea, they’re a beetle but they hop like a flea, so that’s where the name flea beetle comes from. And once the plant gets some size, then most plants can coexist with them. It’s the little seedlings. And if any of you have tried putting out broccoli or arugula starting from seed or just young plants and found them completely shot full of holes, then it’s the flea beetle. It did it.

So for that you could try some insecticide dust. There is some organic as well as some conventional products. Because it’s only the leaves your protecting, it’s not like the other that’s in the flower. There are some products you can try to use on that. Some growers will cover it with row-cover. Or you could set out larger transplants that are a little bit more robust, a little bit more able to tolerate the damage.

MF: OK, so one last—potato beetles.

AI: This is the time of year. They over-winter, adult and they actually walk, barely fly if at all. They really are walkers. So they will basically walk into your fields; so keep your eyes peeled for these adults. Aside from the adults, they don’t feed much. First, they lay eggs, bright orange eggs in clusters on the underside of leaves. So go through your potatoes, and they especially love eggplants. If you have any eggplants, they’ll be there first. Turn the leaf over and look for those clusters of orange eggs and crush any that you see and if you can, stop that first generation from emerging. You’ll be that much ahead of the game.

MF: Oh goodie, more mushing of icky things.

AI: Oh it’s fun to do—you pull the leaf over and you don’t even have to get it onto your finger. Use the leaves to squish the eggs. It’s very satisfying.

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