Harlequin Bugs Vanquished! (Well, we tried.)

Last year at the Derwood demo garden, we had an awful problem with harlequin bugs (Murgantia histrionica), a pest of the Brassicaceae (cabbage) family. They destroyed our crops of kale, broccoli, radishes, and cabbage, and also attacked the nasturtiums and beans, and completely covered a cleome plant (another favorite host). They were everywhere by the end of the season, and in numbers much to high to continue hand-picking and squashing and drowning, our previous methods of control.

Look at that histrionic species name, by the way – I like to know a bit about the history and nomenclature of the bugs I’m squishing, and it’s especially appropriate I’m writing this entry today, since I’m going to see a commedia dell’arte play tonight, and these bugs are named after the servant character Harlequin in that style of theatre, because of the pattern of his costume and the pattern of their coloration. They’re not much for camouflage!

(Photo courtesy Barbara Knapp.) Isn’t that a great picture? It’s like they were posing, lined up in their different growth stages. The one on the left is fully mature, but the immature ones are similar to the adults, just differently patterned and smaller.

Anyway, what I decided to do this spring was plant a trap crop. The theory of trap cropping is either to entice pests away from the crop you want to eat to another they prefer, or to isolate them early on a crop they like and destroy it (and hopefully them) before planting others they might also eat. I chose the second method, and planted a row of mustard in a spot where they’d been numerous last fall. And… waited. No harlequin bugs in the spring. One set of telltale eggs in June:

(Photo: Katherine Lambert.) We saw our first actual bug in July on the day Jon came to teach our Grow It Eat It class about garden pests – good timing, bug! – but it was a lonely camper, and didn’t have much of a family developing until August.

In retrospect, I think we actually killed off a lot of last year’s bugs by tilling our garden early this spring. The last generation overwinters in the soil, and should emerge when the weather gets warm. Which it took its good time doing this year, of course. Between those factors, I bet the bugs that started laying eggs this summer were newcomers that found our mustard and moved in, not descendants of last year’s bugs. So perhaps a spring trap crop isn’t the best method of control after all – a spring tilling does even better, and a fall tilling might be better yet. It wouldn’t have to be the whole garden, either, just the parts where the bugs congregated in the fall.

But here it was August, and we had a ratty row of mustard with harlequin bugs all over it, and fall planting coming up with lots of yummy brassica plants in store. Here’s what we did: dug up the mustard plants, popped them quickly into big garbage bags, tied them off, then searched the soil for escapee bugs and popped those in a final bag, and threw the whole lot in the trash.

That was last week. Of course when we got there today there were harlequin bugs on the row of radishes behind where the mustard had been. But not very many, and we squished them, and we’ll keep after them and hopefully get them all, because collard and turnip seeds went in today, and broccoli seedlings will follow soon, and more in that family that are magnets for the pests. And it would be very nice to have a harvest this fall!

The other critter we’ve been squishing a lot of recently are squash bug nymphs:

They might be hard to see in the photo (by Nick Smith, patient son whom I drag out to the garden to photograph things) but they are a good example of a bug that unlike the harlequin is different in the juvenile stage from the brown and armored-looking adult. Kind of cute, I think. (Squish!) This is what happens when you don’t get to the eggs in time (they are usually orange-ish and planted in clusters under the leaf, often in the joints of veins where they are hardest to crush).

You can see all these bugs in person (if we haven’t eradicated them) by visiting the garden – any time, but particularly on Saturday, August 29, from 10 am to 1 pm, for our Open House. Google the Agricultural Farm History Park in Derwood for directions. Hope to see you there!

13 Comments on “Harlequin Bugs Vanquished! (Well, we tried.)

  1. Nice pics! My cabbage leaves (both ornamental in the front garden and edible in the veggie garden) have been partially devoured by something, lol. I haven't taken the time to inspect the leaves for critters but I should do that.

    Good post 🙂

  2. It could be harlequin bugs but it could be a lot of other things too. Cabbage does take a lot of monitoring, sigh.

  3. I hate harlequin bugs. I squish them in my garden every day, but they're still winning the war over my broccoli and brussels sprouts. The amount of time I've spent on them, I could've bought bushels at the grocery store, yet I don't think any of the plants are going to manage to produce anything in the end. I see them in my sleep…

  4. They are nasty critters, aren't they? And yes, they did survive our demo garden attack, and are currently eating the nasturtiums. So I plan to drown as many as possible next work day, and then plant the new cauliflower, collard and cabbage seedlings with row cover over them.

    Next spring I think we'll try Surround (kaolin clay) sprayed on the plants. Some people have found it to confuse harlequin bugs. But it would be too late for your plants this year, unfortunately. You may just need to turn them into a sacrifice crop and destroy them and the bugs together, if you really don't think you will get a crop out of them. 🙁

  5. Yuck I can't stand these bugs. I had to pull out all my kale to try to get rid of them! They are now trying to develop a taste for green peppers, the awful things. Would chickens eat them? I am wondering if I can borrow a couple chickens for a day and get them to clear out the garden for me.

  6. I am not going to speak for chickens and their tastes. It's worth trying – just remember chickens might also eat seedlings if you have fall crops started. I'd think harlequin bugs would taste awful myself – they seem to only eat strong-flavored plants. Maybe ask the chicken owner what their experience is?

  7. Sadly chickens do not eat harlequin bugs … I have been reading about using soapy water sprayed directly onto the beasties. The soap penetrates their protective shield and dehydrates them. Have yet to try it out.

  8. Too bad about the chickens. I haven't tried spraying with soapy water; I'm always ready to get rid of them as soon as I see them! But it might work, especially with the smaller ones. They do run away and hide, though.

  9. Soapy water works well on a type of harlequin that we have in Victoria it has a black shell and a green and red underbody…soapy water sprayed directly on the smaller one's seems to suffocate them, and stop them dead in their tracks. I have heard also that they are attracted to old meat bones left in a bucket overnight and then can be doused with hot water from the kettle!! beastly really but if I can stop these critters sucking my tomatoes dry them anythings a go

  10. Sadly, I have verified that chickens ignore harelquin bugs. I put my three into my infested collard green crop area and they ignored them flying all around them. Boo Hoo.

  11. me too—every day is spent with a spray bottle of down to earth dishwashing detergent /water 2 to 1 and then its kill kill kill but they keep coming

  12. me too—every day is spent with a spray bottle of down to earth dishwashing detergent /water 2 to 1 and then its kill kill kill but they keep coming

  13. Iv had success with Diatamacous earth but I did have to rake & pull the compost appart & do some tolling but dusted all the gardens & then dust the broccoli family every few days. Will try soapy water but it didn't work last time. I never kill spiders as they are great but my beans are attacked by tiny snails that pellets don't seem to work. The actual beans are ok but the plant is attacked.The D Earth has turned my brocoli family from sticks to nice bushy plants, the secret is spray with water then dust with a propped puffer or I use a plastic bottle with muslin over the lid tied in with elastic band. My method has brought down the numbers

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