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Squash Bug Prevention & Control

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The squash bug (Anasa tristis) is a pest to plants in the cucurbit family (squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, watermelon, etc.) and one of the most difficult garden pests to control organically — but it can be done!

Squash bugs (not to be confused with the Squash vine borer) not only damage plant foliage as they feed, they can transmit the cucurbit yellow vine disease (Serratia marcescens) to plants. The bacterium overwinters with the squash bugs that carry it, and then in the spring the bugs infect the new crop. Young seedlings with their first true leaves are more susceptible to infection than older plants, so it is very important to keep squash bugs off your plants at this stage. (More on that ahead.)

Recognizing Squash Bugs and Understanding Their Life Cycle

Squash bug eggs are usually found on the underside of cucurbit leaves between the veins, though can also be found on stems. The bronze-brown flattened, oval-shaped eggs are about 1 millimeter each and laid in loose clusters of about 20. 

 

Squash bug eggs

Squash bugs eggs are bronze-brown and oval-shaped. They’re usually found on the underside of cucurbit leaves between the veins, though can also be found on stems.

 

Generally, squash bugs lay eggs between early June and midsummer, but this will vary depending on region. Ten days after they were laid, the eggs hatch and squash bug nymphs emerge. The nymphs have long antennae and three pairs of legs, and start out light green and just a tenth-inch long. As they molt and progress through five nymphal instars, they eventually grow to a half-inch, and their color changes to gray. The entire nymph stage takes a little over a month.

 

Control squash bugs as soon as they appear

Ten days after eggs are laid, they hatch and squash bug nymphs emerge. The nymphs have long antennae and three pairs of legs, and start out light green and just a tenth-inch long.

 

The adults are five-eighths of an inch long with flat, dark gray, almost black bodies. They have antennae and six legs, like nymphs. Squash bugs have one brood per year in the North and can have two or even three in the South, and it’s only adults that overwinter. In the spring, they emerge to feed and mate, beginning the cycle over again.

 

Mature squash bug nymph

As squash bugs molt, they progress through five nymphal instars, eventually growing to a half-inch as their color changes to gray.

 

Recognizing Squash Bug Damage

Squash bugs use their mouthparts to suck sap right out of leaves and inject their toxic saliva in the process. The toxin creates yellow spots that eventually turn brown and create holes, and the affected leaves wilt, dry up and die.

Mature plants can tolerate more damage than young squash and pumpkin plants can, but it is always a good idea to intervene after spotting squash bug damage.

A cucurbit that is infected with cucurbit yellow vine disease is in trouble. The bacteria will clog the plant’s vascular system, causing the leaves to yellow and leaf edges to curl. The lower stem will yellow and the roots will rot. Affected plants should be removed and disposed of — not composted.

Squash Bug Prevention

If you have had squash bugs before, your chances of getting them again are high — unless you do something to intervene. 

Remove the old vines and leaf litter from your garden where adult squash bugs overwinter. This will greatly reduce the population that emerges at the beginning of the growing season. 

In a heavily mulched garden, squash bugs will have many places to hide. Plastic mulch (thin sheets of plastic perforated for water to pass through) is an appropriate mulch for squash because it will provide the weed suppression of organic mulch while not providing habitat for pests.

Whether you’ve had a squash bug issue or not, it’s always a good idea to practice crop rotation by mixing up where you plant cucurbits. For instance, where squash were grown the year before, plant nightshades (like tomatoes and peppers), root crops (like radishes and carrots) or salad greens, because these edibles are not susceptible to squash bugs and cucurbit diseases. 

Certain squash varieties are far less likely to be attacked by squash bugs than others. These include acorn squash, spaghetti squash, butternut squash and zucchini. 

 

Zucchini

Certain squash varieties like zucchini are less likely to be attacked by squash bugs than other varieties.

 

Nasturtium, a vining plant with edible leaves and flowers, is said to repel squash bugs. Interplanting nasturtium with your cucurbits as a companion plant may keep squash bugs away.

Floating row cover installed over squash seedlings will deny squash bugs the opportunity to lay their eggs — at least in your garden. This thin barrier lets light and water through but not squash bugs and other squash pests, such as squash vine borer and squash beetles. However, row cover also excludes pollinating insects, so it should be removed when the plants begin to flower.

 

Row cover

Floating row cover placed over squash seedlings will prevent squash bugs from being able to lay their eggs in your garden (at least for the ones that didn’t overwinter in the beds where you’re planting new cucurbit plants).

 

You can continue to use row cover until the threat of squash bugs has completely passed if you hand-pollinate. First, identify a female flower to pollinate. You can recognize female flowers by the small embryonic fruit between the flower and the plant stem. Next, identify a male flower — there will be nothing between the flower and the stem — and peel back the petals to reveal the pollen-covered anther. Brush the anther around the stigma of the female flower, and then close the flower with a lightweight clip clothespin to allow the pollination process to complete. My preferred method is to cover the pollinated flower in a nylon mesh netting bag. These bags are both cheap and reusable.

Another hand-pollination method is to take a small, soft painter’s brush and dab the brush onto the anther to collect some of the pollen, and then lightly “paint” the pollen onto the stigma of the female flower. 

 

Squash flower

To hand-pollinate squash that’s being protected under row cover, first, identify a female flower to pollinate. Female flowers have small embryonic fruit between the flower and the plant stem.

 

Squash Bug Control

Handpicking is a tedious but effective — and organic — squash bug control. Inspect young squash plants, especially the underside of leaves, for eggs. Leave the leaves but remove and destroy the eggs. Frequent inspections and egg removal can stop a squash bug problem before it starts. 

A piece of sticky tape works well for removal or you can try scraping them off with a credit card. 

You can pick off nymphs and adults as well and drop them in soapy water. Some people even use a cordless car vacuum or shop-vac with a narrow attachment in their garden to make the job go much faster. 

Insecticidal soap kills squash bug nymphs when directly applied. You can buy insecticidal soap ready-made or make your own by mixing just one to two tablespoons of dish detergent with a gallon of water. Use the mix in a spray bottle with a narrow spray pattern to target the bugs.

Even though insecticidal soap is considered an organic pest control approach, it is non-selective, just like synthetic, inorganic pesticides. It has the potential to kill whatever it comes in contact with, especially soft-bodied insects, including beneficial insects. Insecticidal soap should only be used sparingly and should never be sprayed indiscriminately. 

Keep in mind insecticidal soap is far less effective on mature squash bugs, which is one more reason to get an infestation under control right away.

If at all possible, practice manual controls first and resist the urge to use chemical pesticides for squash bug control. The beneficial and neutral insects that these chemicals kill are essential to a healthy ecosystem.

Another common and destructive pest of squash plants is the dreaded Squash vine borer. Check out my post on how to prevent and control the squash vine borer. It can devastate your plants quickly if you don’t catch it in time.

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Links & Resources

Episode 008: Organic Pest Control with Jeff Gillman

Episode 050: Organic Pest Control: Beneficial Insects And Beyond

joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds

joegardenerTV YouTube

joegardener Newsletter

joegardener Facebook

joegardener Facebook Group

joegardener Instagram

joegardener Pinterest

joegardener Twitter

Growing a Greener World® 

GGW Episode 723: Natural Pest and Disease Control – Greener Solutions to Common Gardening Challenges

Floating row cover 

Nylon mesh netting bag

Nasturtium seeds

*Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we would get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us. None of the items included in this list have any bearing on any compensation being an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Park Seed, and Exmark. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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