Squish, splash, they’re taking a bath

No, that’s not a typo. I am writing about the bane of my existence as a gardener: squash bugs. You may also know them as stink bugs because they can release an odor when squished.

Adult Squash Bug
An adult Squash Bug will lay up to 20 eggs at a time then suck the fluids out of your cucumber or melon leaves and stems.

At dusk yesterday, I checked on the progress of my watermelons and to harvest an Armenian cucumber for a friend. As I bent down toward the cucumber, I saw two squash bugs mating! I took a shoe and “squished” them. As I did so, babies and nymphs ran away. I squished them quickly too.

I knew, however, that when you spot a few of them, there is a whole tribe. It’s the sense of “Build it and they will come.” If you plant squash, melons, cucumbers or gourds, these evil pests may make a home in your garden.

Squash Bug damage
Watch for signs of damage: brown, dried leaves, wilt, or small holes with yellow or brown surrounding it.

 

PLANT DAMAGE
I looked at the plants and saw the telltale signs. Some leaves on a few stems near the main stalk were dead. Others showed wilt and several leaves had holes with a brown or yellow cast around them. I looked underneath a few leaves and found some eggs. The bugs lay their eggs on the underside of a leaf close to a vein, or along the stalks. The clusters usually have about 20 eggs in them. THAT’S a lot of babies! You can see how they spread so quickly. The adult squash bugs lay eggs, which become the nymphs when they hatch. The adults and nymphs then feast on your crops until they destroy them.

Squash bug eggs laid
Adult Squash Bugs lay up to 20-egg clusters on the undersides of leaves or plant stems.

One of our problems that cooler climates don’t have is that we can have two to three generations of the bugs in the growing season and our freeze comes later, so they can hang around longer. In cooler climates, they only breed one generation and die off faster because of earlier frost dates.

THE WAR IS ON!
Last year, I grew cucumbers and watermelons for the first time in four years because of an infestation four years ago. I didn’t know anything about these destructive bugs and they destroyed my garden quickly. If you want to eradicate the problem after an infestation, you have to wait two to three years before planting cucurbits (squash, melons, cucumbers, and gourds) because they winter underground, waiting for your next crop. They also fly from other sections of your garden or from neighboring gardens. So it’s important to remove them before you reach a level of infestation.

Since that massive attack four years ago, I have declared war on these little devils and studied their patterns, what repels them, and what will outright kill them.

That first year, I put a bounty on the head of each bug. I promised my youngest grandson a nickel a squash bug and sent him into the garden with a bowl of soapy water. He made quite a bit of money but it still didn’t end the infestation. Have you ever noticed that in”fest”ation is very close to “feast”?

Squash Bug babies and nymphs hatch.
The eggs hatch within 7-10 days. The babies crawl out and grow into nymphs very quickly. The nymphs (green or gray) are the ones that do the plant damage.

THE PLAN OF ATTACK
I grow organically so I can’t use inorganic pesticides. This year, I deployed a different plan of attack and it seems to be working.

Squash bugs hate water. I had noticed in past years that when my drip system turned on, the bugs ran up the stalks. I decided to use this new knowledge as part of my attack.

Water mixed with a little Dawn dish soap is the organic gardener’s friend as long as we know how to use it. In our hot summer temperatures, it can burn leaves, so I had to also devise a plan that would keep that from happening.

Early this morning, when the bugs were most active, I walked out to the melon and cucumber plants with a spray bottle of soap insecticide. I must admit, I had an evil grin on my face. I use about ¼ cup of Dawn to a gallon of water. Just spraying the plants with it doesn’t work because the bugs like to hide under mulch and leaves below.

So I took my hose with a jet sprayer and sprayed full force at the base of each plant for a minute or two, enough to cause a small puddle under the plant. Those suckers started running up the stems to the tops of the leaves. I was waiting and sprayed the soap mix onto them as they appeared. It’s not effective unless you spray each bug directly. Don’t be stingy with the spray. Within a few minutes, they die. Don’t leave the area for about 10 or 15 minutes because it may take that long for some of them to make their way up. You may want to spray the base of the plants again to chase out the stragglers, but don’t do it until you are sure the first set of bugs are dead. If your plants have fruit on them, also check under the fruit. They like to hide under there.

Now, this is important for using soap insecticide in our low desert heat: spray off the leaves 30-60 minutes after your bug battle so the soap doesn’t burn the plant.

You still have eggs on the underside of the leaves at this point. It is guaranteed that if you have seen adults, the eggs are there. Examine each leaf and stalk, at least a few feet around where you saw the damage, and further if you don’t have many plants. Wrap some duct tape around your hand with the sticky side out and gently press it against the leaf to pull off the eggs. Those eggs will still hatch on the duct tape so immerse the tape in a bucket of water for about a week or burn the tape. Some people throw them into a sealed baggy and into their freezer. I am not fond of looking at squash bug eggs every time I reach for ice cream, however. I just immerse them into a bucket of soap and water. I fear their ability to crawl up the sides if the tape floats to the surface, so I weigh them down with a brick. Yes, I am paranoid about those little nymphs.

You will have to repeat both the spray and the duct tape maneuvers daily for 7-10 days since that is the length of time it will take for eggs to hatch that you have missed.

REMOVE THE WELCOME MAT
To prevent the return of squash bugs next summer, throw away the mulch and leaves from your beds, remove debris from the area and pray over your garden.

I really do think it is easier to get rid of bed bugs than squash bugs. I consider them the same species!

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Jknapp

I am a certified agriscape designer and Maricopa County Master Gardener. I have been gardening since I was six years old and worked in my grandfather's garden. I believe that the only way to be a responsible gardener is to garden organically. It improves our soil, is safer for us to eat, sustainable and it protects our pollinators and soil from chemical poisoning.