To prevent Colorado potato beetle damage, find space in your potato patch to interplant a few buckwheat plants. They will bloom at just the right time to attract predatory wasps, flies and other beneficial insects.
Illustration By Keith Ward
This article is part of our Organic Pest Control Series, which includes articles on attracting beneficial insects, controlling specific garden pests, and using organic pesticides.
Colorado Potato Beetle (Leptinotarsa decemlineata)
The most common problem encountered when growing potatoes, Colorado potato beetle adults and larvae feed on the leaves and blossoms of potatoes, and may also be seen on eggplant, tomatoes or peppers. Badly hit plants produce poorly because so many leaves are consumed. Organic controls for Colorado potato beetles include crop rotation, mulching with straw, handpicking and maintaining good insect balance in the garden so that a wide variety of natural predators are present. Plastic-lined trenches can capture potato beetles before they find plants. Many populations of Colorado potato beetles are resistant to most pesticides, so organic methods should always be used when growing potatoes.
What Is the Colorado Potato Beetle?
Native to the American Southwest, Colorado potato beetles are now found wherever potatoes are grown. Emerging in mid to late spring, just as potatoes begin growing vigorously, Colorado potato beetle adults are striking yellow-and-black striped beetles with black dots on their orange heads. Adults are often seen lurking in potato foliage, looking for mates. Much more visible are the reddish, soft-bodied larvae that appear a few weeks later, often clustered near the tips of growing branches. As they grow, the larvae develop a row of black dots down each side. When feeding on eggplant, the larvae may be gray in color rather than red.
What Colorado Potato Beetle Damage Looks Like
Colorado potato beetle larvae are leaf-eating machines. If growing potato plants have developed flower buds by the time the larvae settle in to feed, they may migrate to the buds and consume them overnight. In the worst uncontrolled cases, Colorado potato beetles can completely strip plants of all foliage. However, in diversified organic gardens, this pest is more likely to appear in sporadic clusters on individual plants, because many of its natural predators consume eggs and young larvae. Where plenty of lady beetles, ground beetles and small wasps are present, only the best-hidden clusters of orange eggs survive.
Colorado Potato Beetle Life Cycle
In late summer, Colorado potato beetles fly to nearby wooded areas and overwinter beneath bark or other cover. In mid-spring, they emerge and walk until they find potatoes or another suitable host plant. After a little light feeding, mated females lay clusters of orange eggs on leaf undersides. The eggs hatch about two weeks later, and the larvae feed for a couple of weeks before entering their pupal stage. In cool weather the entire life cycle can take 45 days or more, but 30 days is more typical. This means that a second generation can emerge at the perfect time to sabotage midseason potatoes.
Natural Enemies of Colorado Potato Beetles
Numerous natural predators can assist in the struggle to manage Colorado potato beetles. These include lady beetles, toads, birds, predatory stink bugs, ground beetles, and several species of tiny parasitic wasps. In addition, foraging chickens and ducks have a long history of success as potato beetle predators.
Organic Colorado Potato Beetle Control
Planting plenty of flowers that attract beneficial insects is a sound strategy, along with maintaining seldom-disturbed islands that provide habitat for ground beetles. Try to tolerate small outbreaks of aphids in early spring in order to provide food for ladybeetles.
Also consider these organic controls for Colorado potato beetles, listed in seasonal order.
- Crop rotation is essential when growing potatoes. The farther adult beetles must walk to find host plants, the more likely they are to meet with disaster along the way.
- When ridging up the bed to plant potatoes, include a 12-inch deep trench, cut at a 45-degree angle, on the sides of the planting. Line the trench with black plastic. As they crawl toward the potatoes, winter-weak potato beetle adults fall into the trench and cannot get out.
- Mulch potatoes with hay or straw after they are up and growing, but before Colorado potato adults find them. Adults that fall into the crevices of straw mulch enter a dangerous world with plenty of predators.
- Install floating row covers over potatoes after they have been mulched. Open the covers weekly to check for the presence of any adults or larvae, and remove them. Row covers work beautifully to prevent this potato pest, but lucky individuals occasionally emerge and prosper beneath them.
- If you have a home poultry flock, allow them to forage in the potato patch under supervision after the plants are more than a foot tall. They will gather most of the adults but will miss some larvae.
- Handpick both adults and larvae whenever you see them. Squash them under your shoe, drown them in soapy water, or feed them to your chickens. Once you see a few larvae, handpick daily.
- Try resistant varieties like ‘King Harry’, which has so many leaf hairs that Colorado potato beetles find the leaves unpalatable.
- Find space in your potato patch to interplant a few buckwheat plants. They will bloom at just the right time to attract predatory wasps and flies.
- Spray with spinosad when so many larvae are present that nothing else will do. Continue to handpick as intensively as possible.
More Advice on Organic Colorado Potato Beetle Control
Keep a close watch on your growing potatoes in spring, and do not allow the first generation to triple itself by the time your potatoes grow into big, robust plants. Any mulch with a straw-like texture, including coarse grass clippings, can keep populations low. Always rotate crops, and try to plant potatoes after a grain. Do all you can to provide food and habitat for beneficial wasps, flies, ladybeetles, and predatory stink bugs. Scout for eggs if adults are seen, using a small hand-held mirror to get a good look at leaf undersides.
More information on organic Colorado potato beetle control is available from Virginia Tech, University of Minnesota, and the University of Rhode Island. See a research overview at Potatobeetle.org.