Flea beetles in your garden

Q: Help, my eggplants are riddled with holes! What is happening? — Shannon from Boardman

A: Insects are a big challenge for certain plants in the vegetable garden. In this case, flea beetles are the culprits. These little black insects will jump away rapidly when you disturb them. Thus, the “flea” is in their name because they have enlarged hind legs, allowing them to jump away so quickly. There are several species of flea beetles, each doing damage to different crops and looking a little different.

I see them most often on eggplant and some on peppers. We have seen them in large numbers on collards and other greens. They are small, usually black and can be shiny.

Flea beetles can overwinter here in our area but are usually knocked down in numbers by the cold weather. In southern Ohio, they are more of a problem due to generally warmer temperatures. They can overwinter near the soil surface in plant debris, organic matter and more.

There are many management tactics to reduce numbers and to keep them from feeding on your eggplant plants. For the home garden, I find that yellow sticky cards (made so they insects will be attracted, then stick to them) are very handy. They will let you know when there is a problem because lots of them will be stuck to the cards. While they will collect some of the insects, they are not necessarily a way to reduce the number of flea beetles. But, at least you have a starting point because you know there are present.

Many of our university fact sheets recommend using a trap crop, like radish or mustard. Trap crops are crops that are favored more by a specific insect than the plant you want to grow. Thus, the damage occurs more on the trap crop. The insects also favor the tallest, earliest crops available. While it may not help this year, consider a trap crop for next season.

Another cultural control is to increase plant diversity to confuse the insects. According to Utah State Extension, using companion plants such as dill, marigolds, and bunching green onions can make your eggplants less desirable to flea beetles. Other cultural and physical controls include planting schedules, row covers, and biological controls can be utilized as well.

As a final option, there are some chemical controls. Be extra careful when using any insecticides on vegetable plants and blooming plants. Do not use a chemical that is not properly labeled for vegetables. Read and follow all label directions.

For more details on the beetles and detailed control options, go to: https://go.osu.edu/fleabeetle.

Eric Barrett is OSU Extension educator for agriculture and natural resources in Mahoning County. The plant and pest clinic is open Mondays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to noon at the OSU Extension Office in Canfield. For more details visit http://go.osu.edu/mahoningclinic.


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