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!
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.
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.