I knew I had a problem when I started noticing small holes in my young eggplant leaves. It looked like someone had taken a pin and pricked the leaves over and over again. I examined the plants looking for the usual types of pests but was completely befuddled. Then I saw the little black bugs.
Tiny enough you may not notice them, the first sign of flea beetles is usually their damage. They eat small holes in the leaves of many common vegetable garden crops like beans, beets, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbages, corn, turnips, and radishes. A particular favorite for flea beetles is eggplants, which is where most home gardeners will find them. While a small infestation won’t damage the plant beyond swiss cheese holes in the leaves, a bad infestation can completely defoliate the plant. They can also transmit diseases like bacterial wilt.
What are these black bugs on my eggplant?
While the flea beetles that make their home on my eggplants every year are black, some are brown, bronze, or even striped. Because they are small and jumpy they can be hard to spot. Even lightly brushing the plant can send the flea beetles flying. But once you’ve confirmed their presence you can take action to eradicate them from your garden.
Adult flea beetles overwinter in your garden in the soil and plant debris. When they emerge in the spring around late April to early May, they start feeding on your plants and lay eggs in the soil. The eggs hatch into gray or white larvae which spend 2-3 weeks feeding on the roots of the plant. This usually doesn’t cause injury to the plants, but once they mature into adults they’ll start feeding on the leaves.
Once they’re established in your garden you will see them every year unless you try some pest management strategies.
Flea Beetle Prevention and Management Strategies
Transplant large seedlings – Small seedling are most susceptible to fatal damage from flea beetles. Avoid direct sowing seeds for their favorite crops and instead plant large seedlings.
Plant Crops as Late as Possible – Flea beetles are most active in early spring so plant their favorite crops as late as you can, especially if you live in an area with a longer growing season.
Use Row Covers – Protect seedlings from flea beetles by utilizing row covers early in the season.
Till Your Garden Soil – By tilling the garden soil in fall or early spring (or both) you’ll disturb their winter habitat. This will remove weeds and plant debris that flea beetles overwinter in. Tilling in the fall is also a great time to add in leaf mulch to break down over the winter and improve your garden soil.
How to Get Rid of a Flea Beetle Infestation
If you’re already in the middle of the summer and need to get your flea beetle infestation under control there are a few techniques you can try.
Use Sticky Traps – If you want to avoid using chemicals, sticky traps can help reduce or eliminate a small infestation. One word of caution–these traps are extra sticky! Any creature that comes across them can get stuck, like butterflies, bees, or even birds. Make sure to be thoughtful about how you deploy them in your garden.
Insecticidal Soap – A useful option against many garden pests, insecticidal soap breaks down the insect’s body and kills them. Make sure to buy an organic spray that is safe to use on fruits and vegetables and follow the directions to prevent damage to wildlife and beneficial insects.
Pyrethin – This insecticide kills flea beetles by paralyzing them on contact. It also works on a variety of other garden pests.
Neem Oil – Neem oil is frequently what I reach for when dealing with garden problems as it works as an insecticide, repellant, and fungicide. It works like a poison on bugs feeding on the plant. Make sure to buy a type for organic vegetable gardening and follow all the directions.
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