Protect your gardens, yards from those pesky insects

CHARLIE NEUMEYER - Victoria County Master Gardener Intern
Thursday, May 18th, 2006

Bugs. Who needs them? Everyone needs them.

Although our first thought when we spot an insect is to squish it, we need to realize that of the thousands of species of insects, most are beneficial to man. Less than 3 percent of the insects are classified as pests. Of course, when our lawns and gardens are infested with undesirable insects, we tend to forget this fact and bring out the insecticides.

With hot, dry weather approaching, several varieties of insects could soon become a nuisance. Among them are chinch bugs, grasshoppers and fleas. But with a little knowledge and preparation, we can be ready to protect our lawns, gardens and families.

Chinch bugs

One pest we often don't notice until our lawn has patches of dead or stunted, yellow grass is the chinch bug. Although most common in St. Augustine grass, chinch bugs will attack Bermuda and zoysiagrass lawns. The damage can be confused with problems caused by drought and brown patch, so identifying the bugs themselves is the surest way to determine the source of damage.

The easiest way to check for a chinch bug infestation is to take the top and bottom off a 1-gallon can. Tap the can 2 or 3 inches into the area of suspected infested lawn and put several inches of water in the can. If chinch bugs are present, they will float to the top of the water.

If the infestation is severe, a close visual inspection may reveal small numbers of bugs crawling on the blades of grass or on nearby sidewalks. Look for small slender bugs 1/6- to 1/5-inch long. The bugs will have black bodies with white wings with triangular black marks. Once it is established that chinch bugs are the problem, steps can be taken to control them. According to M.E. Merchant and R.L. Crocker, two Texas A&M University entomologists, there are no consistently successful biological controls for chinch bugs, but there are effective chemical controls. Products containing acephate or a synthetic pyrethroid such as permethrin, bendiocarb, carbaryl, cyfluthrin and isofenphos are suggested for homeowner application. Read and follow all label directions when using any pesticide.

The best defense is to be pro-active. Be careful to not over-apply fertilizer that can lead to a build up of thatch, which provides a safe haven and a good home for chinch bugs.

A second key element in preventing chinch bug infestation is applying the right amount of water on the lawn. Remember that chinch bugs like a hot, dry environment. Lawns that are stressed from drought are also more susceptible to damage from chinch bugs. Infrequent, deep watering is one key to controlling insects and to stimulating good root growth in the lawn.

Grasshoppers

Another insect that frequently visits our lawns and gardens in the hot dry months, usually in late June or July, is the grasshopper. As opposed to the chinch bugs, grasshoppers are easy to spot, as is the damage they cause to plants. Grasshoppers are classified as a "chewing" insect, and a quick check shows the damage caused by this type of bug. If plant leaves have holes chewed entirely through the tissue, the grasshopper may be the culprit. A visual inspection will verify their presence.

Although there are some biological controls available to control grasshoppers, insecticides are quicker and more reliable. Mike Merchant, an extension entomologist from the Texas A&M University System, suggests using pesticides containing bifenthrin, or lambda-cyhalothrin for the fastest knockdown and longest control.

Other products that work well include permethrin, cyfluthrin and esfenvalerate. For organic control, geotextile fabrics can be used as barriers to protect plants. But always remember that grasshoppers make great fishing bait, and capturing the insects from the garden by hand or with a net may just be the excuse needed to take a few hours off and head for the nearest tank or river.

Fleas

While fleas do not damage lawns or plants, they can certainly cause problems for the people and pets. They can make cats and dogs miserable and the constant scratching can lead to sores and infections. While fleas do not live on people, their bites can cause small, red welts and uncomfortable itching and they can spread serious diseases.

Once again, the best defense is a good offense. Keeping pets clean and brushed will help control flea populations. Pet bedding should be vacuumed and washed regularly. But if these efforts fail, there are many products available from veterinarians and from pet stores that will control the fleas on pets.

No pets, but you still have fleas? You might want to check with your neighbors. Or look for signs of bats, squirrels or raccoons. These wild animals are also susceptible to fleas. If the infestation has spread to the house, vacuuming will also remove the larvae and the eggs from carpet and furniture. For home infestations, Texas A&M entomologists suggest using low-toxicity citrus sprays containing limonene or linalool.

Boron-based products can also be used indoors. Severe indoor infestations may require the services of a professional exterminator. For a complete list of products to control these and other pests, see the Texas Cooperative Extension Web site: http://citybugs.tamu.edu.