Squish This, Not That: Confusion over Bugs

January 3rd, 2015

Sometimes a little bit of knowledge is a bad thing. I’ve talked, multiple times, to novice gardeners, hobbyists (and, lets face it, I’m a hobbyist too, I don’t have a degree in horticulture, I am not a professional landscape architect, but I’m a garden blogger, gardening is serious business to me), laypeople, or just people who simply don’t know much more about gardening than what the tag on the pot at Home Depot tells them. A common theme I’ve noticed is the misidentification of bugs, specifically in regard to two pests.

Japanese Beetles and Lady Bugs

I thought everyone know what a lady bug was, I mean, they’re represented in cartoons, tv, media, clothing, art, various other cultural representations, and yet still I’ve had multiple people tell me, convincingly, that a lady bug is a Japanese beetle. They think, perhaps, that if they see a lady bug of a slightly different hue, or with a different spot pattern, it must be this Japanese beetle they’ve heard about, this nefarious invader. I don’t know why they have this confusion, but it is rather alarming, considering lady bugs, or lady beetles, or ladybirds, (the insect has a variety of regional names) are generally beneficial insects that eat things like aphids, and you have people killing them mistakenly thinking they are Japanese beetles. Stop the insanity!

Lady Bugs Full Life Cycle

This is the full life cycle of the Lady Bug, pay attention to the scary looking larval stages, those aren’t little monsters, if you see them in your garden do not squish them.

An actual Japanese Beetle. Notice the coppery wings and the iridescent green thorax. Big and slow and invasive, they should be killed when seen.

An actual Japanese Beetle. Notice the coppery wings and the iridescent green thorax. Big and slow and invasive, they should be killed when seen.

What is an actual Japanese beetle? It is much larger, about the size of a nickle, or a man’s thumbnail, they’re slow, ponderous, they eat plant leaves, not insects, leaving skeletonized leaves, and they’re iridescent (shiny, metallic like) green & copper colored. When you positively see one they’re rather obvious and you’ll never make the mistake of misidentifying them again. They have a variety of control methods, and as they’re slow are easily hand caught/squished. They were first discovered in New Jersey in 1916 and have been detected in 30+ states, though have not fully penetrated the western US.

Box Elder Bugs and Stink Bugs

This confusion is perhaps more forgivable. Box Elder Bugs are native bugs that feed off of boxelder, maple, and ash trees. Anything in the acer family. They’re red and black (same coloring as most lady bugs, and people also often sometimes think these are Japanese beetles), and while they feed on the trees, not on insects, they usually don’t cause permanent harm and aren’t considered an agricultural pest. They can however be annoying, they like homes, they like the warmth seeping out of the walls, they can find their way indoors, and they do have an odor when squished, but they’re not really harmful or invasive.

If you see these, squish them, they're invasive destructive pests.

If you see these, squish them, they’re invasive destructive pests.

Adult and juvenile box elder bugs. They may be annoying, but aren't that harmful.

Adult and juvenile box elder bugs. They may be annoying, but aren’t that harmful.

So people hear on the news about an invasive stinkbug that is a huge agricultural pest and think “aha that must be this thing.” It isn’t. The invasive pest stinkbug is the brown marmorated stinkbug. This bug is a serious agricultural pest, and like the Japanese beetle is somewhat slow and easy to catch & squish (though, it can be smelly). If you see one of these bugs, please kill it, it isn’t native here, it is destructive to our environment.

Why the confusion

I think a lot of the confusion results in the invasive nature of these pests. For instance, the brown marmorated stinkbug has only shown up in my garden in south central Michigan this past summer in any large numbers. Previously I had only ever seen a handful (outside of gardening magazines or TV shows). They were first found as recently in 1998 in Pennsylvania areas and have been slowly spreading west and have heavily colonized the DC/NYC east coast areas. So people in the rest of the country hear about the bug long before they ever seen one and so potentially misidentify it. These little suckers are really clingy, they have strong legs and I’ve seen them ride on cars without falling off, which may be aiding in their spread.

I cannot stress enough how important it is that you kill any of these bugs that you see, both Japanese beetles and brown marmorated stinkbugs are horribly invasive pests that are destructive to our native environment. Both are slow enough to be hand killed, Japanese beetles also have very effective pheromone based traps you can buy. I do not know of an effective commercial trap for stinkbugs. But, just make sure you’re killing the right bugs, and spread the knowledge around, public education about these insects is important. And, please, if you catch them in your house, don’t “release them into the wild.” Don’t be that person, they’re a nonnative invasive species, you’re not helping nature when you do that, you’re hurting it.

12 Responses to “Squish This, Not That: Confusion over Bugs”

  1. Mary Lee Nelson  Says:

    Great article and pix. My church’s community gardeners have been asking for this kind of information – to get more education about such gardening matters. I will share it with them. I am already a subscriber. Thanks.

  2. Gena Lorainne  Says:

    So apparently there’s this Japanese Beetle conspiracy theory and all bugs’reputation suffers from it.

  3. Bill  Says:

    Good info. The stinkbugs have been a real problem for us the past couple of years. I’ve found lots of them over the winter hiding in warm dry places.

  4. Rene  Says:

    I have seen these before! Thank for the Article..

  5. Anna  Says:

    No one believes me on this about the box elder bugs, but I keep spreading my story about them and maybe someone will notice what I’ve witnessed and not take the boxelder bug for granted.

    The first winter we lived in our home we were totally invaded by boxelder bugs- they were everywhere in our house. Twice daily vacuum rounds helped to keep them from ending up in our drinks and food, but my poor indoor plants and seedlings had it much harder. The bugs may not destroy an entire tree, but they do suck all of the life out of seedlings- and fast. And hibiscus plants. They destroyed my tropical hibiscus collection by feeding off of them in such large numbers. I would pick off as many as I could find, but I didn’t believe they were the cause of my hibiscus downfall until really it was too late and I didn’t take the problem seriously enough right away. I would find tens and hundreds of box elders on each plant each day, hiding under leaves with their sucking mouthpart pierced into the leaf or in crotches and weaker junctions all along the plant. I was able to eventually save a couple of parent plants. Since that winter we’ve had to spray around the house each fall to keep the boxelders from entering the house in such large numbers, and my hibiscus collection has grown again and not been damaged.

    Granted, this kind of invasion I’ve never seen before and living in the midwest here, I’ve had a lot of runin’s with boxelder bugs. This was an exception I’m sure, but I think it’s worth noting. Boxelders do feed from plants and when they’re out of control they will kill them.

    Thank you for this post- the information on the stinkbugs and japanese beetles is helpful. I’ve found that japanese beetles seem to be attracted to anything bright blue, as we found that out by chance one summer with a child’s kiddy pool. It was bright blue and they’d land in the water of the filled pool and drown. I think I’ve killed thousands of japanese beetles that way since.

    Grasshoppers are an issue here. Any tips on ridding your garden of those? They were a big reason we got chickens…

  6. Brittany  Says:

    So helpful! Thank you! I just downloaded an app called LikeThat Garden that uses your camera to identify flowers. Maybe they’ll make an app that identifies bugs next! https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/likethat-garden-flower-identification/id957861141?mt=8

  7. Alexa~FurnishMyWay  Says:

    I find it so interesting that people confuse lady bugs with Japanese Beetles because the two look nothing alike! Thank you for being very informative and helpful. You’re doing a service for not only your readers, but for the planet as well! Great post!

  8. bruce smith  Says:

    grasshoppers are good bate for fishing. Find someone that likes to fish and ask them to catch some to fish with. they will help you get rid of them and they will be happy to get them. You could even catch them and sell them. the fish will kill them and even if no fish as bate they die

  9. Stacy  Says:

    Terrific article and pictures! The students in my elementary school garden club LOvE bugs. They hunt them, capture them, make homes for them, and ask endless questions. I cannot wait to share this article with them. Thank you!

  10. Emma  Says:

    Great post with helpful information. Thanks for letting us know about the correct thing. Will spread this info in my friends and family 🙂

  11. Mark  Says:

    Wow, I am suprised how a ladybug changes in each stage. Thanks for sharing these photos.

  12. Crystal  Says:

    My garden had a bunch of these at the “scary stage” and I was horrified, kept searching and couldn’t find the answer… Until now, thank you! I will actually like them more now.

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