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Leaf-footed bugs make early appearance

Reader Irma Hernandez-Larin wanted to know what was eating her roses. Leaf-footed bugs!
(Photo courtesy Irma Hernandez-Larin)
Over-wintering adults are laying eggs and making trouble

Be on the lookout: Leaf-footed bugs are already on the attack.

Leptoglossus zonatus has become common
in Sacramento. (
Photo courtesy UC IPM)
Our mild winter and warm spring brought an early invasion. When not killed by cold, the adults can overwinter in the garden, usually hiding out in tall grasses, wood piles or other protected spaces. When the temperatures turn warm, they come out and start laying eggs.

Those eggs will become the second generation of leaf-footed bugs, sucking the life out of early tomatoes and stone fruit. When we see so many adults in April, June and July could be especially bad.

With distinctive leaf-shaped back legs, the leaf-footed bug is a real stinker; they are closely related to stink bugs. The leaf-footed bug stabs its long mouthparts into nice juicy fruit, flower buds, seeds and other favorite targets, then sucks out the moisture.

Usually found in clusters, the young nymphs seem to appear out of nowhere, climbing over ripening fruit to look for just the right spot to dine. They quickly get big and scary-looking; adults measure more than an inch tall.

Three different species are native to California and they attack a wide range of crops and ornamental plants. The most common in Sacramento is Leptoglossus zonatus . Fortunately, damage often is only cosmetic.

In home gardens, they primarily attack tomatoes, pomegranates and roses. They also have a huge appetite for almonds, pistachios, citrus and watermelon. But L. zonatus is opportunistic; it eats lots of different fruit, vegetables, nuts and flowers.

Leaf-footed bugs tend to hang out and breed in weedy areas (they love thistles) before moving into the tomato patch. (That’s another reason to keep weeds down.)

Catch these bad bugs while they’re young. The nymphs move slowly and can’t fly.

Knock them off into a bucket of water; add a teaspoon of liquid detergent to the water to assure a quick demise. No pesticides are necessary. But wear gloves; if touched, these bugs will make your hands stink.

During a previous leaf-footed bug invasion, I asked Sacramento's Bug Man – retired state entomologist Baldo Villegas – for his advice. Right now, watch for their distinctive eggs as well as the nymphs and adults. The eggs look like a tiny amber bracelet. (If you see these bug eggs, pick the leaf and destroy it, eggs and all.)

Leaf-footed bug eggs look like an itty-bitty
amber bracelet. (Photo courtesy UC IPM)
“The females generally lay groups of shiny golden eggs on leaves of host trees,” Villegas said. “The eggs hatch usually about the same time, and they generally feed in groups as there is usually a pheromone that keeps the group together. This is also a clue to how to control them.”

What does he do when he sees these bugs? Shake them off the bush.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

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

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* 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 fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* 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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