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How Do I Keep Insects From Destroying My Garden Produce?

Black beetles with orange or yellow spots feeding on a ripe tomato.
Figure 1. Picnic beetle adults feeding on a damaged tomato. Courtesy: Adam Varenhorst.

It is not unusual to see insects in a garden during the fall, but it can be frustrating to watch nearly ripe produce be destroyed by insects before it can be picked. Ripe fruit that has been injured as well as ground fall fruits can attract undesirable insects into your garden. Some of these insects will feed on the produce, which can completely ruin it by increasing the rate of decay and also make it unappealing. The two types of produce that these pests are most common on are tomatoes and apples. For insects to be an issue, the skin of the fruit is typically damaged by something other than the insect pests, but it allows for them to begin feeding on the wounds.

Common Garden Produce Pests

Commonly, small black beetles can be observed congregating in and around the wounds (Figure 1). These beetles are commonly referred to as sap or picnic beetles and they can become a pest from now until the first hard frost in gardens and orchards.

Black and brown beetles feeding on a damaged apple.
Figure 2. Picnic beetles and sap beetles feeding on a damaged apple. Courtesy: Adam Varenhorst.

Picnic and Sap Beetles

Picnic beetle adults are attracted to ripe or decaying plant matter, which they will feed on and lay eggs within. These beetles are normally an indicator of previous damage to the plants, but will also assist with the breakdown of the plant material. In some cases, they can be a pest if they increase the size of the damaged area on fruits and vegetables such as apples (Figure 2), strawberries, raspberries, sweet corn and tomatoes, or if they begin feeding on undamaged fruit. Picnic beetle feeding is usually associated with deep cavities in the fruit. Their feeding can also introduce fungal spores that will lead to additional breakdown of the fruit.

Sap beetles are about ¼ inch long, brown in color and do not have any spots. Picnic beetles are slightly larger than the sap beetles and are black in color. Picnic beetles also have four yellow to orange colored spots on their abdomens.

Orange beetles with black spots feeding under the skin of an apple.
Figure 3. Multicolored Asian lady beetle adults infesting an apple. Courtesy: Lynn Hartter.

Asian Lady Beetles

Another insect that can invade and reduce the quality of produce are the multicolored Asian lady beetles. Similar to the picnic beetles, the multicolored Asian lady beetles will aggregate near and in injured areas of apples and other produce (Figure 3). At this point, they will begin feeding to a degree, but will also leave an irreversible scent/flavor in the fruit. This often requires the fruit to be destroyed as the flavor will persist even after processing the fruit or vegetables.

Protecting Your Garden Produce

The first thing to do to reduce picnic beetles, sap beetle or multicolored Asian lady beetle problems is to maintain a clean garden or orchard. Remove any overripe, damaged, or diseased fruit and vegetables regularly. Simply throwing them into a compost pile won’t be enough as these beetles are mobile. The best strategy is to bury the infested fruits or destroy them using other means. This will remove the food sources and reduce the attractiveness of the garden or orchard.

If picnic or sap beetles are already present, bait traps can be used to attract and remove the beetles from the area. These bait traps can be made using a bucket baited with ripening fruit, bread dough, stale beer, or vinegar. Similar traps may be effective for attracting multicolored Asian lady beetles. When using a liquid bait, add a drop or two of liquid dish soap to break the surface tension of the liquid so the beetles will sink. These traps should be placed outside of the area that you are trying to remove the beetles from, and the contents need to be discarded every 2-3 days to prevent infestations from becoming worse. Once the contents are discarded, the traps should be rebaited and replaced until all produce can be harvested.