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Harlequin bugs are no laughing matter

These harlequin bugs are on an Asian pear at the Fremont Community Garden in midtown Sacramento. These are mostly nymphs, An adult is next to the stem. (Photo: Debbie Arrington)

This stink bug cousin loves mustard, cabbage, kale and fruit

These harlequins aren’t funny. In fact, they’re real stinkers.

This month, they’ve invaded Sacramento gardens with a vengeance. They’re looking for cozy spots to spend the winter. In the meantime, they’ll chow down.

With their distinctive and colorful markings, harlequin bugs are easy (and alarming) to spot. The young ones tend to hang out in clusters or large groups.

It’s those spots that give harlequins their nickname. A member of the stink bug family, Murgantia histrionica are shiny black with orange, yellow or red markings. Adults are about 3/8 inch long.

The nymphs, or immature bugs, are particularly colorful. They look almost like mutated lady bugs, but in reverse, with red or orange dots on a black background. The nymphs go through several stages, molting four or five times before reaching their adult size and coloring. While young, they can’t fly.

Meanwhile, they eat. Like other stink bugs, they plunge their feeding tubes into fruit or vegetables, and suck out the juices. Besides deforming the fruit, the enzymes they leave behind makes it inedible. They also feed on leafy greens, causing white blotches where they ate. Heavy infestations will kill plants.

This time of year, they’re hunting for nesting areas. Harlequins love cabbages, mustard and kale. They prefer to lay their eggs on cole crops such as those members of the cabbage family. If they can find an old cabbage or mustard plant to hang out in all winter, they’re in harlequin heaven.

Also like other stink bugs, harlequins seem immune to most pesticides. The best control is hand-picking the nymphs off plants and squishing them (with gloves – they do stink). Or knock them into a bucket with soapy water; they can’t swim.

UC Cooperative Extension master gardeners also recommend destroying old cabbages, mustards and other potential host plants so the harlequins don’t have a place to hang out. Also clean up weedy spots near fruit trees or garden areas. Those weeds may shelter harlequins.

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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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