Thursday, August 18, 2011

Squishing the Squash Bugs

See those dots?  They're the little bronze balls at the center of the squash leaf in the picture below.  These are newly-deposited eggs of the gross squash bug. 
Squash bug eggs
 Squash bugs are attacking the zephyr squashes on the farm.  Zephyr squashes are green and yellow zucchini-like squashes.  They are very generous plants, and we have to collect them every two days while they are in season, or we'd be buried in giant squashes.
Yellow squash, zephyr variety
 Squash bugs belong to the insect order Hemiptera.  Stink bugs, aphids, cicadas and assassin bugs are also Hemipterans.  Hemipterans have piercing, sucking mouth parts (think sharp straws), only one pair of wings, and commonly have a shield-shaped patch on their backs.  They usually eat like kids consume drink boxes:  poke in the proboscis and suck out the liquid.  Most Hemipterans eat plant sap, but a few (like assassin bugs and toe-biters) specialize on blood or insect juices.  Technically, Hemipterans are the only bugs that can be called bugs.  They are the "true bugs" of the insect world.  All other bugs are just insects.

Squash bugs drink squash juice, which can be found inside squash plant leaves, stems and fruits.  They are voracious, and they can suck out so much squash sap that the leaves can wilt and smaller plants can just wither and die.  More commonly, they damage plants by walking through diseased portions of the plants and treading spores to other parts of the plant.  They also make little specks on zucchinis, acorn squash and other squashes, which reduces their retail value if not their food value.  In addition, they creep out their squash farmers.

Yes, there is a squash bug in the center of the picture
 Adult squash bugs are shy.  If you try to take a picture of one, they will constantly walk to the opposite side of the stem from where you are.  That is why the picture above is so lame.  They also congregate under dead leaves or other things on the ground.  One way to catch a lot of squash bugs is to set a board on the ground under an infested plant.  Then go back the next day and squish them all.  Or brush them into soapy water if you don't like squishing bugs.

Younger squash bugs are easier to find.  After they hatch, they hang out under squash leaves and gradually spread out over a few days.  I was 'lucky' enough to find this cluster of squash bug nymphs and get a picture before they scattered.  They are slower than adults, so they scatter slowly.  If you find a bunch of squash bug nymphs, you can brush them onto the ground and stomp them, or brush them into soapy water.
A billion little squash bug nymphs.
On the farm, we kill squash bugs if it doesn't slow us down from the rest of our work.  We also squish the eggs when we can.  Mostly we use timing to reduce the impact of the squash bugs.  Squash grow quickly, but squash bugs take almost a month to hatch and grow to fighting size.  By that time, the squash bugs are really cooking, the squash plants have been fruiting for a week or two.  Also, squashes grow so quickly, most of the squashes escape damage and can still be harvested.

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