Don’t Flee From Flea Beetles

By Pat Dickey, Fairfax Master Gardener

eggplant flea beetle

Magnification of tiny eggplant flea beetle

Flea beetles are among the most troublesome pests that we encounter in our vegetable gardens. We assume that they will try to feast on our vegetables in groups by chewing tiny holes in the leaves. This can result in wilted or stunted plants and a decrease in production. There are ways to prevent this from happening.

In Virginia, the two most common types of flea beetles are the eggplant flea beetle (Epitrix fuscula Crotch) and the tobacco flea beetle (Epitrix hirtipennis Melshimer). Both are members of the leaf beetle family Chrysomelidae and are tiny in size, from 1.8mm to 2.5mm in length. They both have an enlarged hind femur that allows them to have a flea-like jump. E. fuscula has a dull black oval-shaped body with many small indentions along the back. E. hirtipennis has a yellowish-brown body with a brown band across its hard, outer wing cover. There are also many less common flea beetles that are striped or dark blue as well.

flea beetle

Flea beetles damaging leaf

These flea beetles will feed on plants of the Solanaceae family, including eggplant, potato, tomato, pepper, tobacco, daikon radish, petunia, and belladonna, and the weeds: nettle, nightshade and jimsonweed. Other affected garden vegetable seedlings are cabbage, spinach, beet, mustard and other radishes, although they may feed on any seedlings in the area.

The eggplant flea beetle has two generations per year in Virginia, and the entire life cycle from egg to adult is 30 to 45 days. The tobacco flea beetle has three or four generations per year and has a shorter life cycle of 23 to 30 days. All the adults overwinter in the soil in leaf litter and other weed debris near their host plants.

Both species emerge from the winter in late April to early May and lay eggs at the base of their host plants. Eggs take six to eight days to hatch, with the larvae then burrowing into the ground and feeding on plant root hairs. The larval stage lasts approximately 20 days as tiny white grubs. Their pupal stage is one to four days, after which they will emerge as adults. These two species of flea beetles can often be seen feeding on the same plant. Plant your eggplant seedlings later in the season to avoid this active reproductive time.

Tobacco flea beetle

Magnification of tiny tobacco flea beetle

Another way to keep flea beetles at bay is the use of repelling plants, such as wormwood, mint and catnip. Radishes can also be used as trap plants to attract the flea beetles away. Use floating row covers to protect your plants and remove them when flowers appear. In organic gardens, apply diatomaceous earth or kaolin clay to leaves to control the flea beetles and repeat this after periods of rain. Neem can also be applied, but read the directions concerning the time of application. At the end of the season, remove all weeds and garden plants to prevent any overwintering in your garden. Adult flea beetles can also transmit viral or bacterial diseases, so we should do what we can to keep them away.

References
Flea Beetle Control in Home Gardens, Eric Day and Thomas P. Kuhar, VA Tech and Virginia
   Cooperative Extension
Flea Beetles Attacking Eggplant in Virginia, James A.C. Mason and Thomas P. Kuhar, VA Tech and Virginia
   Cooperative Extension
Common Diseases and Insect Pests of the Vegetable Garden, Kirsten Ann Conrad, Extension Agent,
   Arlington County Virginia Cooperative Extension
Flea Beetle — Vegetables, Home & Garden Information Center, University of Maryland Extension

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