Patrolling for Potato Bugs

Nearly every evening we go for a walk after supper.  It’s a practice we started many years ago (we call it our “paseo”) and it’s become a part of our daily routine.

But this time of year we have to cut our paseos short, as we usually begin them with a short walk over to the potato garden, where we spend 30-60 minutes patrolling for Colorado potato beetles, known unaffectionately to us as “potato bugs.”

Potato bugs are voracious and persistent. If potato plants are left unattended, the potato bugs will destroy them.

The conventional way to deal with them is to spray or dust the plants with pesticides.  That practice accounts for the fact that potatoes have the highest percentage of pesticide residue by weight of any vegetable.  When you eat conventional potatoes, you are eating pesticides.

Organic farmers usually control the beetles by spraying their potatoes with Spinosad, a natural pesticide approved for organic use.  But “organic” or not, it’s still a pesticide.  It kills the potato bugs, but it kills the lady bugs too. On our farm we don’t use any pesticides, whether organic-approved or not.

So we control the potato beetles by hand.  The process is time-consuming, but fortunately they’re not difficult to spot and they’re not evasive.

When we patrol, we are on the lookout for the three stages:  the adult beetles, the eggs and the larvae.  We show them no mercy.

The eggs are easily visible

The eggs are easily visible

An adult beetle

An adult beetle

The hated larvae.  It is at this stage that they do the damage.

The hated larvae. It is at this stage that they do the damage.

Last year was a bad year for potato bugs.  The infestation was the worst I’ve ever seen.

This year the situation is back to normal.  We have things under control and are close to being able to discontinue our evening search and destroy missions.

Over the years we have found that when a particular pest population explodes, suggesting the need for massive chemical intervention, if allowed to address it, nature will act on her own to restore a natural balance.  One year we were attacked in force by pea aphids, and I’ve seen very few of them since that year. Another year we went through a Japanese beetle plague, but we hardly see any now.  Our spring brassicas were savagely attacked by harlequin bugs one year, but since that year I’ve rarely seen one.

We know there will be potato bugs every year, but with an hour a day in the garden for a few weeks, and help from the lady bugs (lady bug larvae eat potato beetle eggs), we can keep the plants healthy and strong, insuring a great harvest without the use of toxins.

We like it that way.

For the fascinating story of potato bug patrolling in Cold War Lithuania and how Soviet propaganda attributed Colorado potato beetles to a capitalist plot, check out BeeHappee’s post HERE.

 

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35 comments on “Patrolling for Potato Bugs

  1. Rebecca says:

    It’s that time of year! Whatever else I’m doing in the garden, there is always time for potato bug squashing. They do seem much more manageable this year. Every brassica I’ve ever grown, however, is plagued by cabbage worms. Don’t think I’ve ever had a good year with those little devils.

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    • Bill says:

      Good point. They’re a big pain for us in the spring, but not in the fall. This spring they’re destroying our cabbage. So far I’ve only harvested one head. But surprisingly they’re hardly bothering the broccoli at all. I think the solution for me is to quit trying to grow cabbage in the spring. It’s a challenge to get it to maturity before it bolts anyway.

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  2. Sue says:

    I only grow a small patch of taters, so I’m lucky to be able to cover them with the Agribon fabric.
    You’re so on target with controlling pests. Most of the time, Mother Nature will intervene and send something to control it—be it birds or some good bug. I think a lot of people just like taking the easy way out–but a stroll in the garden is so much more beneficial to everything. And hey, it’s good time spent chatting with the spouse!
    😀

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    • Bill says:

      I agree. I think that by refraining from using poison we’ve given nature the opportunity to balance things out on her own–with a little help from us of course. 🙂

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  3. BeeHappee says:

    Oh boy, those lady-bug looking guys surely do bring back memories. 🙂 Thank you for linking to my post, Bill!

    Potato bugs are not difficult to pick off. I am curious what you do to control cabbage worms, like Rebecca mentioned, we did not have good solution for those, or the little worms that get into sweet peas, some years all pea pods would be filled with them.

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    • Bill says:

      I pick off cabbage worms too. I can usually find them and eliminate them before they do much damage on broccoli, but when they’re down inside the young cabbage heads they’re really hard to control. My solution, I think, is to stop trying to grow cabbage in the spring. We have a great fall growing season and the cabbage is always nicer then, and I don’t have to worry about cabbage worms.

      I’ve never had any worms in my pea pods, thank goodness. I don’t know what those are. Hoping I never have to find out.

      Liked by 1 person

      • BeeHappee says:

        Hmm, sweet peas that we used to eat often would have little tiny worms inside of them, so you had to open each peapod and check.. But sometimes we just ate them with all the worms and all, just like wormy apples. 🙂
        Makes sense about the cabbage, then you can prep it fresh for winter.

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  4. Victo Dolore says:

    I loved doing those walks with my grandpa, squishing the potato bugs. Good memories!

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  5. shoreacres says:

    Here’s a question from someone who knows nothing about potato growing and bugs: do these critters affect both sweet potatoes and white potatoes (which, by the way, I grew up calling Irish potatoes)? The more I learned about plants and bugs, the more amazed I become at how specific some relationships can be.

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    • Bill says:

      No, the potato beetle only attacks white/Irish potatoes. They will eat other nightshade plants as well. We always find a few on eggplant and tomatoes, and they love horsenettle (which we grew up calling “sand briers” and which are also nightshades). But Irish potatoes are their preferred food. The worst pest for sweet potatoes are deer (which don’t eat nightshades). Totally different plants in lots of ways.

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  6. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, BeeHappee’s post on the potato beetle was certainly interesting. I didn’t know any of that either. I must be the most blessed potato grower on the planet. My potatoes have not had a single bug on them in the three years of growing potatoes. Of course Terra Nova Gardens have wild turkeys that keep the bug population almost down to zero. They roam and scratch through the garden but never seem to bother the plants. They will actually sit among the potato plants during the hot part of the day to be in the shade.

    What a nice surprise to see one last kid from Johnny. The little guy will be a great reminder of just how special Johnny was to the White Flint Farm.

    The luxury post reminded me of just how blessed we are as a nation. Even the poorest of the poor in this country live like Kings compared to some other countries. I never was one that was comfortable with luxury. It is true that almost every thing people have in this country is a want not a need. Most everything I buy must have a function and be useful. It really upsets me that we have become a throw away society. Even though I want to repair things, the parts are not available or the cost is too prohibitive but I still try to the point of frustration before giving up.

    Yea, the marathon driving trip is over. We left Thursday night at 8:30pm and made it back home about 6:30pm on Saturday evening. Two thousand miles of driving in less than 48 hours makes for two tired people. With all the flooding in Texas is was difficult to find a hotel room for less than $200 a night. We came part way back on Friday to get out of the flood zone and acquire a better price on a room. Even with two drivers, that was a long tiring trip. The grandson is glad to be back living in my house and re connecting with friends and family here. Hopefully, it will be a permanent thing until he graduates high school.

    Have a great bug patrol day.

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    • Bill says:

      Glad you’re back safe and sound and I’m especially happy that you have your grandson back home.

      That’s amazing that you’ve never had a potato bug! I hope your good fortune continues.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. daphnegould says:

    I do bug patrols with cucumber beetles. Sadly they do like to fly away, but I get a good percentage of them.

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  8. bobraxton says:

    Fascinating. When we boys (three) were very young, a little kerosene in the bottom of a tin can and down the row(s) of potato plants. Dropping the larvae into the swim. (not) the most pleasant of tasks for a child. We did our patrol in the morning and middle of the day, not after “Daddy” returned from his carpentry work day.

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    • Bill says:

      Cherie sometimes uses a jar of soapy water to drop them into. I just squish them. In my experience it’s good to mix up the times of day the search is done, as the adults like to come out and lay eggs during the middle of the day and are often hiding by early evening.

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  9. Joanna says:

    We haven’t hit bug season yet, but it will do soon enough I suspect. Last year wasn’t too bad, only one or two plants were attacked and easily dealt with. A friend of mine had a very weedy potato plot last year due to lack of time and a lot less problems with that half of the plot with the bugs than the well weeded section. Makes you think!

    I didn’t have time to comment on the luxury post either, but the quote from William Morris just as the industrial revolution was beginning to kick in and provide lots of industrially produced trinkets and gadgets

    “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

    So I don’t think we should neglect the beauty and the artistic in our quest for a simpler life, but a few well chosen pieces would enrich us and benefit the artists. 🙂 Less stuff though would be good

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  10. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    Lol, this story really took me back in time… My grandma used to do her bug patrol armed with a Heinz ketchup can with a couple of inches of soapy water in the bottom… It was rigged with a wire handle so she could carry it in one hand and then use the other to knock or pick off the “nasty little buggers” and dispatch them forthwith; )
    Thanks for the memories and the lifecycle info! (I just knew those squirmley larvae were Bad Guys: )

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  11. jubilare says:

    Nature really does do a great job of correcting imbalance. It’s always the predators that are the last to bounce-back, and killing them with pesticides only clears the field for the crop-eating critters. A while back, I got a “complimentary” pesticide spray, outside my house, along with a termite inspection. They didn’t ask, they just did it. I was furious and called to complain.
    The person I talked to jumped in to assure me that what they sprayed was “child and pet safe” and I retorted “and what about my spiders?”
    You can imagine the silence that followed. She probably decided that she was speaking with a lunatic. I explained my position, and why I wouldn’t use their company again (it was Ace Exterminators, if anyone wants to know). But the damage was done. I saw the difference instantly. Not only did I have a huge problem with aphids that year, but my snakes and skinks disappeared. I can only hope that they fled rather than died from eating poisoned bugs.

    It’s been about 4 years since then, and things are back to normal. It was scary, though, to see how quickly the pest-critters came back compared to their natural predators. We really are going to kill ourselves with our short-sighted “fixes.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

      Yes, funny how (hu)mans’ “taking care” of things can make such a mess in such a short amount of time, isn’t it… Another twist on 6* of separation):
      Why on earth should we presume to know more than millions of years of Mother Nature’s acclimatisation?
      Perhaps if we would focus on PRObiotic/biosis instead of Anti (but I’m totally preaching to the choir here, aren’t I?; )

      Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      We had termites in our house. We wrestled with what to do but ultimately knew we couldn’t put the house at risk, so we had an exterminator come out. Thank goodness the rep (not the salesman who signed us up) had a conscience. He said he noticed that we had bees and just wanted to make sure that we knew the treatment was dangerous to them. We didn’t know that of course. He asked us not to tell the company that he told us so we didn’t, of course. But we did reschedule the treatment until early winter, when the bees were dormant. I wonder how many bees have been needlessly killed because termite treatments weren’t timed to avoid killing them?

      Liked by 1 person

      • jubilare says:

        I shudder to think.

        Liked by 1 person

      • bobraxton says:

        honey bees, I presume – not the wood-boring “bumble” bees – after 31 years (45 years from construction of this house) we had the “trim” removed (I kept to use) and replaced and I could see directly from the back sides of the 2″ x pieces the huge round pockets that those bees had been occupying. From along the roof line (this is 3-level, two stories above grade).

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  12. avwalters says:

    Back on the chicken farm in California, my landlord told me that in the Second World War, the Japanese, dropped earwigs on coastal farm communities, intending to disrupt food production. I Googled it, and found no such thing. Maybe we like to blame our blights on others. Better still to patrol and nip the problem in the bud.

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    • Bill says:

      I’ve never heard that one before. But you’re right, it’s much easier to blame “the others” for the problems we cause ourselves.

      Like

  13. Not long ago while we were keeping the home garden running (no time for that while building a farm ironically) L and I would do nightly slug patrols. Headlamps strapped on we searched for even the littlest guys intent on munching themselves into full blown gigantic “gaggers” that even the chooks won’t touch. We have some hope that ducks will help but it is untested. We are told that ducks “eat protein first”. The downside is that every critter thinks duck tastes good. I agree. Enjoy your strolls when you take them. And when you find a potato that did well against the onslaught I hope you save it for seed. Who knows, it might be slightly resistant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Last year was the year of the potato bug. We’d patrol the garden two or more times a day and we still couldn’t keep them down. They actually destroyed part of our fingerling crop. But we noticed that two of the fingerling varieties did much better than the others, so we saved seed from those two. Unfortunately the seed went bad before planting time, so we had to order more. But we only ordered the varieties that survived and produced even during the worst potato bug year we’ll probably ever have. And they’re looking good.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Amy says:

    Whenever I squish pests (we do it by hand here too) on veggie leaves I like to think that I’m creating my own on-the-spot pest deterrent. Not to be morbid, but guts-of-dead-relative-deterring-others makes sense to me.

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