Currently, Philip and I live in Central Florida which is garden zone 9A which experiences mild winters. In the past several years we have found that if we plant our garden early when there is still a chance of frost, we are much more successful with the garden. We do have to be very mindful of the weather to protect our young seedlings from frost. However, it was a gamble that we took several years that paid off well. Our gardens were much more productive if we could get a head start before the insects arrived in the warmer months. This year, however, it was a wager that we lost. Florida got several heavy frosts including a late frost after our last frost date that killed almost all our garden. As a result, we planted much later than normal and have had to deal with our biggest garden nemesis: insects. One of this year’s biggest nemesis was the leaffooted bugs.
What are Leaffooted Bugs
A Leaffooted Bug and its offspring, the Leaffooted bug nymph are true bugs commonly found in the southwestern and western United States. They were especially fond of my tomatoes. At first, the Leaffooted bugs didn’t seem to be much more than an annoyance. They commonly were clustered on the fruit of the tomato as they were ripening. I squished every one that I found. However, they quickly got the best of me, as the number of bugs was increasing. They were beginning to do some visual damage.
Scientific Name: Leptoglossus zonatus
Common Name: Leaffooted Bugs
Size: approximately 0.75 to 1 inch long
Region: Mostly southern and southwestern United States
Identifying the Leaffooted Bug
The adult Leaffooted bug has a similar shape to stink bugs. They have long legs that can be identified by the small leaf-like enlargements on their hind legs where they get their name. The adult bugs can puncture all areas of the plant parts: the leaves, stems, and fruit of their host plants. Leaffooted bugs are fond of seeds, however, they are a major pest that plague fruits of many types as food sources: tomatoes, plums, pomegranates, young citrus groves, and watermelon. They have a light-colored stripe behind their heads across their back.
The adult insects can fly, but they spend most of their time foraging for food on the preferred host plants. The small nymphs are red in color and do not have wings. Usually, you will see them clustered together on the fruit alongside the adult leaffooted bugs and may appear as two species. The nymphs are very similar to assassin bugs which are actually natural predators of the leaffooted bug nymphs.
The leaffooted insects lay eggs usually on the underside of the leaves in a single row. They are laid end-to-end in a long strand. The cylindrical eggs are brown in color. While I saw many in the adult and nymph stage, I did not find any eggs. As with any insects, if you can disrupt the life cycle, you have the best chance of getting ahead of the insects to save your garden. Removing any eggs is the best way to do that if you can find them!
Damage to Crops
The Leaffooted bug uses its long probe to pierce the fruit to suck out the plant juices. The nymphs cause damage to the skin of the fruit. However, the adult bugs can probe deeply into the fruit in search of seeds with these piercing-sucking mouthparts. They use digestive enzymes to liquefy the surface of the seeds so they are able to ingest them.
Fruit damaged by the Leaffooted bugs will have a discolored color and dimply surface. I prefer my tomatoes to vine ripen, but since the Leaffooted bugs were attracted to ripening fruit, I began to pick any tomatoes that were beginning to blush. The tomatoes continued to ripen in my kitchen window. However, I found that almost all my tomatoes were discolored and rotting at the feeding site despite picking them early.
Defeating the Enemy
Leaffooted bugs overwinter in weed areas where they are drawn. Keeping the garden area clean and free of weeds can help. As I container garden, weeds are a minimal issue, however, the lawn is mostly populated with weedy areas rather than grass. Another option presented was row covers to protect plants. If you saw my tomatoes well above my head, that would have been most difficult.
Companion planting is a recommended means of drawing the leaffooted bugs away from your fruit-bearing garden plants. Sunflowers are particularly effective as insects prefer seeds as their primary food source.
Another option is to spray the nymphs with a insecticidal soap such as castile liquid soap. I used Neem oil which seemed to disable them long enough for me to catch them to squish the adults and nymphs. Of course, sometimes there were too many and they would get away before I could catch them all. However, neem oil had no effect on adult insects.
Conquering Adult Leaffooted Bugs
The only effective method of controlling adult insects was with insecticides such as permethrin. I am trying to avoid all insecticides in the garden not only for our wellness but also to protect the bees and other beneficial insects. So this was not an option I was willing to try.
The best recommendation that I read, was using a cordless hand vac to vacuum the bugs off the plants and then kill them in a soapy solution. As I prepare for the next garden season, this is the option that I plan to pursue, as it was the only organic method of control that seems to be effective.
Removing the eggs is another effective way to control insects in home gardens. Disrupting the life cycle is the most effective way to defeat insects if you can find the eggs. It’s a time-consuming job to search the backside of leaves especially the size of tomato leaves.
Defeated by the Leaffooted Bugs
Unfortunately, I was not successful in defeating the Leaffooted bugs and their spawn. Since I did not have a serious infestation, I hand picking off any adult bugs I could find. Ultimately, I ended up pulling my tomato plants and removing the food source. It had reached the point, that none of the fruit I was harvesting was good, all the green tomatoes would rot as they turned red. I opted to stop watering plants that were not able to provide food for harvest.
July Container Garden Tour
Sources of Information About Leaffooted Bugs
I have searched multiple sources to determine the correct spelling of leaffooted bugs versus leaf-footed bugs. Despite researching multiple university websites and insect organizations, the spelling was found both ways.
About the Author: Barbra-Sue Kowalski grew up on a small hobby farm. She was always drawn to farm life, however, she was stuck in an urban life far from her roots. Barbra-Sue was a single mom for 13 years, raising her 3 children on her own. She met Philip in 2018 and they married in 2021. Between the two of them, they have 5 grown children and 4 grandchildren. These empty nesters are following their dreams! As they both turn 50, they are building their off-grid homestead to live the life that they dream about. Learn more about Philip and Barbra-Sue here. Contact them here. To leave a comment on this post, please scroll down.