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What's eating your seedlings? Could be bagrada bugs

Colorful stink bug cousin can devastate young leafy greens

Bagrada bugs
Female, left, and male bagrada bugs. The pests have been
taking hold in California since 2008. (Photos courtesy UC IPM)

What’s eating your cabbage and broccoli seedlings? According to several Sacramento accounts, it may be bagrada bugs.

These stink bug cousins usually are most active in February and March when wild mustard (their favorite food) is rampant across the Central Valley. But a wave of recent bagrada bug sightings has been reported in local community gardens as well as backyard vegetable beds.

Size comparisons, from left: Lady beetle, bagrada bug,
stink bug, harlequin bug.

Also known as the “painted bug,” the bagrada bug ( Bagrada hilaris ) looks similar to the harlequin bug but is smaller. Less than 1/4-inch long, the bagrada bug is black with orange and white markings; harlequins have no white markings. According to the UC Cooperative Extension master gardeners, the harlequin is three times the size of a bagrada bug.

Bagrada bugs go after young seedlings and leafy greens. That’s why they can be particularly devastating now, when gardeners are setting out cool-season transplants.

According to the master gardeners, bagrada bugs tend to attack cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, turnip and mustard greens. This bug also attacks related cruciferous crops such as radish and arugula. Ornamental landscape plants such as alyssum, candytuft, nasturtiums, rockcress, stock and wallflower can be infested.

Bagrada bugs
Bagrada nymphs and adults.

Under mild conditions, bagrada bugs can have several generations in one growing season. Their nymphs are bright red-orange and black, and often mistaken for lady beetles. In Southern California, they tend to peak in late summer and early fall (as in right now).

An invasive insect native to Africa, bagrada bugs were first discovered in California in 2008. They got a foothold in Los Angeles before spreading throughout Southern California. By 2013, they were found in Fresno and Monterey. Now they’re established in Sacramento, too.

They love mustard but will eat other kinds of leafy greens, too. Like other stink bugs, they jab their needlelike mouthpart into their food and suck away. Their damage looks like a little starburst on the leaf surface.

Like other invasive stink bugs, they have few if any natural enemies; birds don’t like to eat them. Pesticides aren’t affect on them either.

Besides wild mustard, their favorite host plant is sweet alyssum. That flower can attract masses of these bugs; don’t companion plant alyssum with your cabbage or broccoli.

But sweet alyssum can be used as a lure to bagrada bug death. Get a pyramid-shaped stink bug trap (such as the Rescue-brand stink bug trap), but substitute a piece of alyssum for the bait. (Bagrada bugs won’t respond to other stink bugs’ bait.)

Another method of control suggested by the master gardeners: A sheet of paper and a handheld vacuum. Place the paper under a plant suspected of bagrada bug invasion and gently shake the plant. The bugs will fall out onto the paper. Then, vacuum them up.

In the meantime, protect young seedlings with individual covers or hot caps.

For more on bagrada bugs and controls:


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 26:

Sacramento can expect another inch of rain from this latest storm. Leave the sprinklers off at least another week. Temps will dip down into the low 30s early in the week, so avoid planting tender seedlings (such as tomatoes). Concentrate on these tasks before or after this week’s rain:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Knock off aphids with a strong blast of water or some bug soap as soon as they appear.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to help corral blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees, which are now in bloom and setting fruit.

To prevent sunburn and borer problems on young trees, paint the exposed portion of the trunk with diluted white latex (water-based) interior paint. Dilute the paint with an equal amount of cold water before application.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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