How to Identify and Remove Potato Bugs

two bugs with yellow lines on a leaf
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Your garden is a buffet for you, but it’s also a source of food for many insects and other animals. Potato bugs are one such nuisance.

What Are Potato Bugs?

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When gardeners talk about potato bugs, also known as pill bugs, they're talking about two different types of insects. The first is the Jerusalem crickets (Stenopelmatus fuscus), and the second is Colorado potato beetles (Leptinotarsa decemlineata). Both types of potato bugs are found in the United States.

Why Are They Called Potato Bugs?

For as little as they are, either type of potato bug can mow through a garden patch and are especially fond of the tubers, roots, and leaves of potato plants, which is how they obviously earned their nickname.

How Can I Tell if They’re in My Garden?

The first signs of potato bugs will appear about the same time your potatoes start to come to life in late spring. Look on the underneath side of your leaves. If you see small orange eggs, you have potato bugs.

orange eggs on a leaf

If they get to the larvae stage, you’ll see salmon to deep red coloring on the body and blackheads. Potato bugs mature quickly, so check your plants often. It only takes about 14 days to move from larvae to pupae and they can spawn a few bundles of eggs each season.

If you miss the eggs or insects, the first sign you notice might be missing flowers on your plants. They target the soft petals first so pay attention. Next, they’ll move on to the leaves and, depending on which type of potato bug is making a home in your garden, may saunter over to nearby tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and other plants.

Will Potato Bugs Kill My Plants?

They can. If you catch them early or if there are only a few, removing them may eliminate the problem. However, an infestation can clean out your crops, especially potatoes. Potatoes are particularly susceptible early in the season where they can weather about a 30% foliage loss. As the tubers develop, they become less tolerant and can succumb to overeating by potato bugs.

potato bugs eating a plant leaf

Will Potato Bugs Bite or Sting Me?

Technically, Jerusalem crickets can bite and cause discomfort, but they are otherwise not harmful to humans. Colorado potato beetles don’t bite or sting and are harmless to handle.

Remove Potato Bugs By Hand

The quickest and easiest way to get rid of a few potato bugs is to pluck them off your plants and discard them. Also, be sure to remove eggs.

Use Pesticides to Discourage Potato Bugs

As a preventative method or a means of driving out the buggers, you can apply Neem oil, which may also kill them. Diatomaceous Earth (DE) is another reliable way to kill off potato bugs. DE is safe for humans and pets but wreaks havoc on insects.

Plants Deterrent Crops

Instead of planting the favorite lineup of vegetables for potato bugs, choose plants they don’t appreciate. Spice up their plate with ginger, wasabi, beets, sweet potatoes, parsnip, garlic, and horseradish and they’ll likely find another place to graze.

Mix it up

Potato bugs spend winters underground, which allows them to wake up in the spring with breakfast potatoes in bloom and ready for munching. Stir up their world by switching around where you plant different types of foods.

Invite the Homesteader Animals

four male chickens in a sunny field looking heroic

Many animals feed on insects and are happy to control the potato bug population for you. Rely on turtles, toads, chicken, and geese. You can also release ladybugs in the area.

Build a Trench

Potato bugs aren’t the most agile critters. You may have seen trenches between rows of crops. One purpose of these trenches is to trap potato bugs who find their way in but can’t get back out. Make your trenches wide with sharp angles on either side. Then cover the trenches with plastic.

Mulch ‘Em

There are many types of mulch, including newspaper, bark chips, and grass clippings. Since this mulch will be next to your edible plants, make sure your selection is organic. Pine needles, bark, straw, grass clippings, or compost are all good options. In addition to discouraging potato bugs, mulch offers the added benefits of retaining moisture in the soil and feeding nutrients to your plants.

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