Friday, May 19, 2017

Walnut caterpillars

An outbreak of walnut caterpillars has recently been reported in Fort Bend county.  These caterpillars can be found on pecan, walnut, and hickory as well as oak, willow and various woody shrubs. Walnut caterpillars have chewing mouthparts and can defoliate trees.

Walnut caterpillars live together in a group after hatching out of the eggs. As they grow, they are reddish-brown and become covered with long, white hairs. Larger larvae are covered in white hair and can grow up to 2 inches long.

Walnut caterpillar first instar larvae and egg mass
Walnut caterpillar larvae first instar and egg mass. Photo by Bill Ree.
The way damage appears depends upon the stage of caterpillar you have.  Young caterpillars only feed on soft tissue of foliage, so you get skeletonized leaves.  Older larvae eat all parts of the leaf.  The majority of damage is caused by the last few instars of the caterpillar.  This leads to the conclusion that scouting for these insects early and often can help you control walnut caterpillars before too much damage occurs.

If you discover egg masses or newly hatched larvae in a cluster, you can remove the infested leaves by hand and dispose of them in a sealed plastic bag.  Groups of caterpillars found on the tree trunk or branches while they are molting can be squished or treated with insecticide.
Walnut caterpillars third instar. Photo by Bill Ree.
Walnut caterpillar larvae third instar. Photo by Bill Ree.

If walnut caterpillars are found on your trees, then you can treat them with Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki which is a product that targets caterpillars.  Other possible active ingredients that can be used include: spinosad, azadirachtin (neem), pyrethrins, or a pyrethroid product.

If you have an outbreak of walnut caterpillars, please contact Bill Ree as he is tracking this information.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Stink bugs- have you seen me?

immature stink bug genus ChlorochroaYesterday as I was perusing the demo garden outside the office for insects (it's how I take a break...) when I came across a plethora of stink bugs.  There were adults. There were nymphs. There were even eggs!  I took photos and planned on using them for some future endeavor at the time unknown me to when.....

stink bug genus Chlorochroa seems to be the time for the photos.  I received an email this morning asking what the bug was that I had discovered in such high numbers yesterday.  I am assuming that since I'm now getting emails, it means that they are not only in East Austin, but in many other places as well.  Head out to your gardens and take a look to see if you can find stink bugs!

The stink bugs I found are in the genus Chlorochroa.  They can be from 8-19 mm (1/4-3/4") and can range in color from green to brown to black.  Around the edge of the body there is a white to yellow to reddish-orange stripe.  Nymphs and adults feed on plants.

stink bug eggs genus ChlorochroaIf you have these critters, you can try one of my favorite ways to manage stink bugs....the vacuum. You don't want to use your regular, household vacuum, but have one specifically for the garden.  I find that cordless, hand-held models are quick to grab and easy to use in the garden.  Don't buy a top of the line model with a lot of suction as they will also suck up a good bit of your plants.  Another option is to hand pick and dump the bugs into a bucket of soapy water.  If you find eggs, then either pluck off the leaf and throw it away or squish the eggs.

If you're not into vacuuming or hand picking, then you can try pesticides with active ingredients such as azadirachtin (neem), pyrethrins, lambda-cyhalothrin, beta-cyfluthrin, or imidacloprid.  If you have nymphs, you can try using an insecticidal soap.

Friday, April 28, 2017


spittlebug spittleI'm sure that you've seen spittlebugs somewhere recently.  They seem to be everywhere this spring.  When I was little, I remember walking through the fields by our house and the plants would be covered with spittlebugs.  My mom would tell me that it was frog spit and if I touched it I would get warts.  So how do you test a hypothesis?  You experiment. This led me to the aforementioned fields covered with "spit".  Imagine my delight and surprise when I discovered an insect buried in the middle of all that "spit".  ....I did wonder for quite some time about the wart thing.....I ended up getting a wart on my finger......

Spittlebug immatures are the ones that create spittle.  They are a small, yellowish-green, wingless insects that resemble a leafhopper.  Spittle is created as protection from predators and adverse environmental conditions; its a mixture of air and an excretion from their alimentary canal.

spittlebugSpittlebugs have piercing-sucking mouthparts that are used to puncture plants and feed on juices.  While heavy feeding can lead to distortion of the plant, typically damage is negligible and control is not needed.

If you feel the need to manage spittlebugs, or you are just grossed out by the spittle, you can remove it and the insects using a jet of water.

Friday, April 21, 2017

2017 All Bugs Good and Bad Webinar Series: Ticks

When: Friday, May 5th, 1:00PM CDT
Where: online

tickIn this webinar, Dr. Thomas Mather, Professor, University of Rhode Island,  (aka "the tick guy") will talk about an important arachnid, ticks.  Ticks that you do and don't see as well as how to protect yourself, your family, and your pets will be discussed.  Moderated by Ellen Huckabay and Bethany O'Rear, Regional Extension Agents, Alabama Extension. Click here to login as a guest and participate in the live event.   Note: on May 5th, the link to the live webinar opens about 15 minutes before the webinar. If you try to log in earlier, you will get an error message.

For more webinars in this series, see 2017 All Bugs Good and Bad Webinar Series. The webinars are brought to you by the following eXtension Communities of Practice: Ant Pests, and Urban IPM; and by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Clemson Cooperative Extension and University of Georgia Extension.

Friday, March 17, 2017

2017 East Austin Garden Fair

It's that time of year for everyone's favorite garden fair!  Come join us for the fun!

When: Saturday, April 8, 2017 from 9AM- 2PM

Where: Parque Zaragosa Recreation Center- 2608 Gonzales Street Austin, TX

Cost: FREE!!

Free and open to the public, this fun, hands-on fair involves community members in creative, low-cost ways to grow vegetables, herbs and fruit to improve the family diet as well as information about Earth-Kind landscaping. Travis County Master Gardeners offer University-based information to fairgoers on a diverse variety of horticulture topics, while Community Partner Organizations provide information on closely-related services, programs and projects.

The fair features an assortment of DIY and demonstration activities, including building a rain barrel, raised bed or compost bin, and information about waterwise irrigation methods and gardening in containers and straw bales.  Learn how to care for house plants as well as your garden tools!  Booths on backyard chickens and beekeeping are a big hit with all ages and there will be plenty of activities for kids.

Free soil screening for gardeners will be offered through Austin Resource Recovery. To have soil tested for metals, pH and nutrients, attendees need to bring a 2-cup soil sample in a quart-size zip-lock bag. Instructions for soil sampling can be found at

Free vegetable, herb and ornamental plants will be given to attendees while supplies last.

Community partners and new participants in the fair include the Sustainable Food Center, Green Corn Project, Home Depot Kid’s Workshop, Austin Public Library, Austin Resource Recovery, City of Austin-Urban Forestry, 4-H CAPITAL AmeriCorps, Travis County 4-H, Travis County Master Wellness Volunteers, the Travis County Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program and the Cooperative Extension Program-Prairie View A&M University.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Yucca plant bug

Do you have yucca planted in your landscape?  Have you checked it lately for pest problems?  I know that it seems early to start checking for pests but I walked past the yucca at the office this week and it is covered with yucca plant bugs already.

Yucca plant bugs are in the order Hemiptera and are related to other sucking pests such as stink bugs and leaf-footed bugs, but are much smaller.  Adult yucca plant bugs have a bright reddish-orange head and thorax with dark bluish-black wings.  Immature yucca plant bugs (nymphs) look similar to adults but do not have fully developed wings.  Since immatures do not have their wings fully developed, they're more red than black in color.

Both immatures and adults feed on plants by piercing plant tissue with their mouthparts causing yellowing spots on the foliage.

These little critters can sometimes be a challenge to manage since when you go to treat for them, they all dive into the center of the yucca into the nooks and crannies to hide.  You can try products with active ingredients such as insecticidal soap, horticultural oil, azadirachtin (neem), pyrethrins or bifenthrin, cyfluthrin, or carbaryl.  You will need to get good coverage to make sure that you get the pesticide to where the insects are hiding (and be careful not to get stabbed by the yucca!).

Friday, February 3, 2017

FREE Webinar series- 2017 All Bugs Good & Bad

The 2017 webinar series All Bugs Good and Bad starts today (Friday, February 3, 2017). Please join us for this webinar series for information you can use about good and bad insects.  We used your feedback to bring topics that you suggested for 2017.   We will discuss troublesome insects such as invasive ants, landscape pests, vegetable pests, and house dwellers as well as arachnids too.  Not all insects are bad, though, come and meet some of our native pollinators!  The series kicks off today with “Don’t let tramp ants take over your home”!

Friday, February 3 at 1:00 pm CST

It's frustrating when ants march into our homes, schools, and buildings. Tramp ants such as Argentine ants and odorous house ants can be very frustrating to deal with especially if we are trying to control them the wrong way. Get a plan! Learn practical tips for preventing problems from these pests in this webinar presented by Dr. Karen Vail, Professor, University of Tennessee.  Moderated by Mallory Kelley and David Koon, Regional Extension Agents, Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Click here to login as a guest and participate in the live event.   Note: on February 3, the link to the live webinar opens about 15 minutes before the webinar. If you try to log in earlier, you will get an error message. 

For more webinars in this series, see 
2017 All Bugs Good and Bad Webinar Series. The webinars are brought to you by the following eXtension Communities of Practice: Ant Pests, and Urban IPM; and by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension ServiceClemson Cooperative Extension and University of Georgia Extension.

Please note that the connection room is different (and easier!) this year. 

Schedule for the 2017 series:

February 3: Don’t let tramp ants take over your home; Dr. Karen Vail

March 3: Protect your veggie harvest from hungry insects; Zach Snipes

April 7: Mosquitoes and insect borne diseases; Dr. Derrick Mathias

May 5: Ticks; Dr. Thomas Mather

June 2: Aphids, scales, and whiteflies; Erfan Vafaie

August 4: Drain flies, house flies, and fungus gnats; Wizzie Brown

September 1: Meet our native pollinators; Molly Keck

October 6: New invasive ants to know about; Dr. Timothy Davis

November 3: Pantry pests, carpet beetles, and clothes moths; Dr. Eric Benson

December 1: Don’t let bed bugs hamper your vacation plans; Alan Brown

Friday, January 20, 2017

Why entomology? Why study bugs?

I often get the questions of today's topic posed to me when I meet people.  Why did you go into entomology?  How did you decide to work with bugs?

It all started when I was a kid.  I loved insects.  I have various memories throughout my childhood that pointed to my future career as an entomologist, but I didn't know at the time that I could work with insects and get paid for it.

In 5th grade, we were assigned to research and write a report on the animal of our choice.  My friends picked normal things like dogs or giraffes or penguins.  What did I choose to do my report on?  Ticks.  Yes, you read it correctly.  The animal I wrote about was a blood-sucking ectoparasite known to transmit various diseases to mammals.  Why did I forego learning and writing about something cute and cuddly?  I could be glib and just say that I'm weird, which is true but doesn't quite give a complete answer.  We had three large dogs when I was a kid and lived in the middle of nothing.  Ticks- picking them off the dogs, checking yourself for them when you came in from playing outside, smashing the engorged ones with a hammer (not the best idea, I know now....)- were a way of life.  I wanted to know more about them and the report was the perfect way to accomplish my goal.

In 6th grade we were introduced to science fair.  We had to come up with a hypothesis, test it, draw conclusions and report on it.  What did I choose for this project?  I decided to buy an ant farm and build an ant farm to test which one would make the ants happier (i.e. tunnel further through the substrate).  This little project was inspired by one of my very favorite books to read as a small child- Ants are Fun by Mildred Myrick.  Yes, I was weird even as a small child.  I can admit it now.  The book was about a kid that just moved into a new house and his curious neighbor wondering what the new kid was doing digging around in the yard.  The new kid loved ants and had made an ant farm, so inspiration! I thought it would be a great idea to make my own ant farm.

Let's jump to high school where I got to go to Ohio State (it was called that back then, as opposed to THE Ohio State University) to tour the biological sciences department and learn about the different programs they had.  Entomology was one of those programs.  I was enchanted and giddy at the thought of learning more about insects.  For some reason, when I finally got around to going to Ohio State after graduating from high school, I decided I wanted to be a geneticist.  I began that course of study, changed to biology and then finally got around to taking an entomology class after I got all of my science prerequisites completed.  I changed my major to entomology about two weeks into the entomology course.  I remember calling my mom to tell her about changing my major and she said "What are you going to do with that?!"

Fortunately, things have worked out well for me.  I have two degrees in entomology, married an entomologist (who doesn't mind bugs in the freezer....the engineer I dated during undergrad was not fond of looking for food and finding bugs), and now my mom has someone to call whenever she has a bug that she needs to have identified.

Friday, January 6, 2017

It's freezing outside. Why are all the insects not dead?

So as I sit in my cozy office (with my sweater, scarf, fingerless gloves, and heater) I consider the poor insects that are having to deal with the drastic flip-flopping of the weather the past few weeks.  We've seen temperatures in the 20's and temperatures in the 80's, so I'm sure that they are a bit confused.  I was asked last week when it was warm how the mosquitoes came back so quickly if they died when it was freezing.  Well.......

Insects have certain adaptations that allow them to survive when temperatures get cold.  If you really think about it, they still have bugs in Minnesota when it warms up and they have to deal with much colder and longer winters than we do here in Texas (just ask my neighbors who are transplants from Minnesota).

Just like the snowbirds that drive their RVs to Texas or Florida to spend the winter, there are certain groups of insects that migrate to new areas to spend the winter where temperatures are not as cold.  A great example of this is the Monarch butterfly.

Another example that can be put into "human relation" terms would be insects that use cryoprotectants (anti-freeze compounds).  The most commonly used compound that insects use for this purpose is ethylene glycol, which is the same compound that is in antifreeze that humans put into our vehicles.  Ethylene glycol allows the insect's body tissues to supercool and remain above their freezing point.

Freeze tolerance is another modification that some insects use to survive freezing. With this method, freezing causes water to be forced out of living cells and causes the fluid around them to freeze.  These insects also need to empty their digestive tract as food can hold water which could freeze and cause problems.  Freeze tolerance is easier for smaller insects due to the fact that they have less fluid in their body because of their small size.

Some insects may gather together to create collective heat.  Honey bees do this inside the hive during the winter to keep warm.

Other insects seek areas of shelter in the immediate area where it is not so cold.  A good example of this is the ladybugs from my previous blog post.   These insects move into homes through cracks and crevices or other areas that are not well sealed when it gets cold.  This can lead them indoors to become nuisance pests.

I haven't covered all the methods that are used, so don't expect all the bugs to die just because it's freezing outside.  Like the Terminator...."they'll be back!".