Saturday, June 25, 2011

Japanese Beetles - Go The Natural Way

by Donna L. Watkins

Update:  7-25-11 (one month later after this article was written) 
I am so excited that we seem to have reached a balance in our habitat.  I have continued to look for the beetles and can only find a few on our four (4) huge Rose of Sharon bushes.  I can't believe it!  In the past month I've only seen about 20 Japanese Beetles in our entire one acre yard.  We do have a lot of birds and a lot of babies growing up, so I guess it's all balancing out quite nicely.  YEA!

They've arrived in our garden a few days ago, but I've only seen a few.  We were plagued with Japanese Beetles every year when they took over our four Rose of Sharon bushes hardly allowing them to bloom since they eat the buds. We don't like to spray anything, even organic natural solutions, since we believe nature will balance itself out and there's a purpose for everything (well, that doesn't include mosquitoes and ticks).

© Donna L. Watkins - Japanese Beetles on Milkweed Blooms
One year I picked them off and put them in water and felt so bad about it. Instinct told me that something could possibly benefit by leaving them. So we began leaving them three years ago. The bushes get a bit messy while the Japanese Beetles enjoy their stay for a month.

There are many birds that benefit from Japanese beetles, so attract birds to your landscape with birdbaths, feeders and nesting boxes that are placed near where you have beetle problems. Starlings are considered a nuisance, but you may get to like them knowing they eat adult beetles from the bushes! They also eat the grubs in the ground.

Next to beneficial insects (see below), songbirds consume the most pest insects in your yard. The grubs are eaten by grackles, crows, blackbirds, robins, meadowlarks, cardinals, starlings and catbirds as they move to the surface of the soil prior to emerging as beetles. The birds that eat the adult form of the beetle are starlings, robins, catbirds, purple martins, blue jays, and cardinals.

What's very cool is that our pair of catbirds have made a nest in the Rose of Sharon bushes the past two years. I guess Mama realized she can sit on the nest and enjoy a fast food meal simply by reaching out and gobbling up those beetles. I love to see things like this happen!

Over the long haul, a good defense involves improving the soil in your yard so beneficial organisms that live in organic matter present and active. They prey on Japanese beetle eggs under the grass or around plant roots. Mulching is the easiest way to add organic matter to the soil, as it breaks down with the help of earthworms. The soil is better able to hold air and moistures which makes the beneficial microbes very industrious.

We personally like to chop up our leaf matter from the previous Fall leaves. Since we have mostly oak trees, oak leaves have to be chopped since they don't break down quickly. We dump about 4 inches of the chopped leaves all over our garden and planting beds. The first year we did this we were amazed at how our earthworm population increased. Not only was it wonderful to have a use for the leaves, rather than hauling them back into the woods, we were getting free fertilizer since earthworm castings (their poop) is one of the best soil enrichments you can get.

Another great natural enemy is the Spring Tiphia wasp, which was imported into America from China to control the beetles. The female wasp goes into the soil and lays her eggs right on Japanese beetle grubs, killing up to 85 percent of the grubs in a lawn. Sounds way better than poisonous chemical insecticides! We don't have lawn but we have planted forsythia, peonies, and firethorn to attract these beneficial wasps.

The richer soil will attract the microscopic organisms that attack eggs in the soil and having as many different predators living in your yard will present fewer pest problems overall. The greater the variety of plants on your property, the greater the diversity of natural enemies of pest insects that will reside there.

After the JB's are finished feasting, they lay eggs that produce grubs that winter over and become beetles next year. There are many critters that dig these grubs up and eat them. Sometimes I find one while digging in the garden and I put it in the bird feeder as a juicy morsel for some fortunate bird. If you've got turf grasses, these guys will kill it. Fortunately we don't want a lot of grass since it doesn't serve much purpose for wildlife, so that's not been a concern.

My friends and neighbors have tried sprays and the bags that you hang around the garden to collect them, but their bushes don't appear to look any better than ours during this time period. This is probably because the beetles release a substance that attracts more beetles and these bags have that substance in them. However, I've read online at various places that the bags seem to attract more beetles than they collect, so agricultural extension offices are beginning to not recommend them. They are still being promoted by places that sell them. If you have a neighbor using one to attract the JB's then you'll definitely have them in your garden.

Patience is something I get to practice while waiting for the beetles to have their fill and be finished with our bushes and then the bushes seem to bloom profusely. It seems that the beetles have given them determination to shine after the battle is over.

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