Lacebugs sound like the sweet grandmothers of the insect world. They should be the kind of insects that spend their lives basking in broad leaves, supporting gardens, and making the whole yard cozy.
But these sapsuckers are not the grandmothers of the garden. They’re more like a starving brother-in-law who moves in to “get back on his feet” and then invites 200 of his best friends to eat you out and about.
Like that hard-to-evict relative, once lace bugs have taken up residence in your garden, they’re not interested in leaving.
Lace bugs (family Tingidae) are hungry little creatures that spend their short lives devouring your plants. They feed on plants by sucking sap from leaves, such as thrips and mites. These insects can cause a lot of damage, leaving behind only the dried skeleton of the leaf.
There are over a hundred species of lace bugs in North America. Each species is specific to a host plant. In many cases, lace bugs can live almost their entire life cycle on a single plant, sometimes even on a single leaf of a plant.
Leptodictya tabida feeds on sugarcane, while Stephanitis pyrioides feeds on azaleas. Corythucha cydoniae meal from hawthorn and Stephanitis takeyai meal from Japanese andromeda.
Lace pins are tiny – they rarely grow more than 1/8 inch in length, so they can be difficult to spot. They feed primarily on trees and shrubs, spending the majority of their time on the undersides of leaves.
Lace bug damage is unlikely to kill your trees, but these pests can ruin the look of a smaller plant as long as they are present.
While each species of plant attracts a different type of lace bug, these different species of lace bug all look alike. The difference between the species is mainly manifested in what the insect can eat. Hawthorn bugs cannot survive on azaleas, and ornamental lace bugs cannot suddenly jump to hackberry plants.
Young lacebugs are dark-colored, wingless creatures. Their bodies are tiny, you won’t notice them unless you’re looking for them – and even then it can be a challenge. If you examine one closely, you will see a flat-bodied miniature insect with tiny spikes sticking out of its body in all directions.
The nymphs hatch from eggs laid on the underside of the leaves of the host plant. After hatching, the nymphs feed on the leaves and develop steadily for 3-4 weeks. As they grow, the nymphs shed their skin, leaving it clinging to the host leaf like a fragile piece of ash.
After five instars (growth spurts), the nymphs are adults. Adult lace bugs have wings. They mate quickly and lay eggs on the underside of an attractive leaf. The whole life cycle takes a little over a month. Depending on the length of your growing season, your plants could harbor 2-4 generations of this pest in a year.
Like the nymphs, the adults feed on the leaves of their host plants. Since the entire life cycle of these insects can be experienced on one or two leaves of a plant, they often cause the entire leaf to die back.
The adults of the last generation before winter hide in the crevices of the bark or under the piles of leaves to wait for spring. Lace bugs that feed on evergreens can actually overwinter on evergreens. In the spring, the adults return to feast on the newly unfurled leaves, lay eggs and begin a new season of life.
Recognize the damage caused by lace bugs
When lace bugs feed on your plants, they leave behind some telltale signs. Lace bug damage is similar to spider mite or thrips damage on the top of the leaf, but flip the leaf and you’ll see the whole story.
On the upper side of the leaf, lace bugs leave a pattern of yellow or white mottled spots on the leaves. This is because the insects suck the juice from the leaf from below, causing patches of dryness on top.
Beneath the leaf, you will see more telltale signs of lace bug feeding. The undersides of affected leaves are messy with dead skin and rejected egg crusts. You may even see the greedy insects themselves.
What should I do against lace bugs?
If you have discovered lace bugs making a threat of themselves in the garden, you have plenty of options available to you. Because they are more of an annoyance than a danger, your response can be as intense as you want.
1. Ignore them
You can skip the lace pins. Like that all-too-familiar relative, they’re not malicious, just a general nuisance. They will damage the overall appearance of your plants a bit, but they won’t kill them.
Since these insects are host-specific, they cannot spread throughout the garden either. If you have lace bugs on your azaleas, they will stay on your azaleas.
Many gardeners choose to ignore them. With so many other pests in the garden, it’s hard to get upset about an annoying little bug that won’t destroy your plants. For other gardeners, the visual damage caused by lace bugs in the garden is worth a bit of retaliation.
2. Water spray
The lace bug nymphs are wingless so if you take a high pressure hose and spray water on the underside of the leaves. The water will cause the nymphs to fall to the ground, and since they cannot fly, the insects cannot return to their plants.
If you use a water spray to get rid of lace bug nymphs, mist the affected plant once a week to keep the nymphs away.
3. Neem oil and insecticidal soap
You can add a few drops of neem oil to a batch of insecticidal soap and spray the undersides of the leaves weekly to kill both adults and nymphs. Insecticidal soap is a useful tool to keep insects away from lace.
If you are managing this insect on a flowering plant, avoid spraying insecticidal neem soap while the plant is in flower. It can damage pollinators as well as lace bugs, so protect your beneficial insects while controlling less beneficial insects.
4. Predatory insects
Lace bugs have many natural predators. If you’re looking for a natural way to defeat these invading insects, bring in reinforcements. Assassin insects, lacewings, jumping spiders, ladybugs and parasitic wasps are natural predators of these insects.
Introducing natural predators to your garden can help control pests like lace bugs, but be careful. Sometimes introduced species do not fit into the environment as they should.
5. Organic pesticides
Lace bugs rarely need the “big guns” of conventional pesticides. They are easy to manage in a low impact way. But if your lace bug infestation is out of control, pesticides can be a big help. Organic pesticides are a relatively gentle way to exterminate an out-of-control lace bug problem.
Try a spray containing pyrethrin, like this one made by Bonide, on the underside of the leaves. Or try one of the many varieties of horticultural oils on the market. Both of these should be applied every two weeks to ensure you kill all life stages of the pest.
6. Conventional pesticides
There are rare situations where the presence of this pest warrants the use of strong chemical pesticides. Don’t make the mistake of going overboard in your fight against lace bugs and damaging your garden’s beneficial insects as well.
Remember that chemical pesticides that kill lace bugs can decimate bees, butterflies, ladybugs, and other beneficial creatures that help your garden thrive.
If you choose to use them, use them with care. Apply them only when the plant and its neighbors are not in bloom. Use the minimal application to control your problem, then move on to less destructive means.
If you are going to use chemical pesticides, cyfluthrin and permethrin work well against lace bugs. Apply them to the underside of leaves where insects congregate. It is best to apply chemical pesticides at night to minimize pesticide damage to pollinators, children and pets.
When using chemical pesticides, be especially careful around neighborhood pets. Permethrin is highly toxic to cats and some varieties of birds. Cyfluthrin is extremely toxic to bees, but less dangerous than permethrin to pets. Use pesticides with care and remember that this pest can often be easily controlled with less aggressive methods.
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