Identifying Pests

Stinky the Stink Bug

With the cooler fall weather settling in nicely here in the desert, I’ve hung up my wide-brimmed shade hat and pulled out my lavender-scented long-sleeved shirts.  The same shirts that I  washed, folded and neatly tucked away with a dried lavender sachet last spring for just such an occasion.  Now, all I have to do is sport a silly grin while I wave enthusiastically goodbye to the hoards of pesky pests exiting my garden like a land rush on opening day.  Goodbye squash bugs.  Farewell leaf-footed bugs.  Good ridden aphids.  Toodles tobacco horned worm.

I can finally sit back and rest while I watch my fall garden grow in peace.  W—e —l—l … unless you live in fairytale garden-land, the land rush… it’s to your property.  And the pests… some have familiar faces while others are new, but they all have the same goal in mind.  Eat your plants!

Okay.  I admit, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it feels true.  For most gardeners, when the weather cools, they do see a reduction in the number of insects and other pests munching on their beautiful fruit and veggie plants.  But any noticeable warming in temperature, the bugs do a reboot and proceed where they left off.


Why mention this?  For the past few weeks it’s been fairly quiet in my garden.  Every day my visits have been carefree as I enjoyed watching my honey bees delight in their feast of pollen and nectar from a variety of basil and Lemon Queen Sunflowers lovingly grown in their honor. At least this was the case up until earlier this week.  The bees and bumblers (a nickname for the cherub-like bumble bee) are still lovin’ their pre-winter buffet and recent wing warming 81°F day-time temperatures, but what caught my eye was the damage I found on a few of my yellow pear tomato fruit.

Without much thought, I went about my business finding no other damage, until I saw it.  An insect, with the shape of a shield for a back, sitting on one of my tomato leaves without a care in the world.  Sitting there, out in the open, middle of the day daring me to catch a glimpse of him or her.

To add insult to injury, a day later, I found a medium-sized tobacco horned worm (similar to a tomato worm), which I promptly plucked from its suction grip on my tomato branch, zipped it away in a plastic baggie and tossed it into the trash.

No sooner had I patted myself on the back for my triumph against the insect world, I found a “hopper”.  A name hubby and I have designated to those pesky erratic hopping nuisances that can munch down half a plant in no time.  And I bet you’ll never guess what plant I found it on.  Yup… my tomato plant.  Ah, come on!


Once I got over the fact they were going after my yellow pear tomato plants, I scooped up my little hopping foe and quickly imprisoned it within a plastic baggie and dealt the same fate as I did to the worm and armored insect – to the trash with em’ 🙂

Why not squish them and put them out of their misery?

You see, I’m not an insect prude or anything.  Actually, I’m quite the opposite, but… I just can’t make myself squish them.  Something about green goo sends shivers up my spine. Yeah, at the sight of a good squish, I do the smooshed up face thing, hop around with one knee tucked in closely to the other like I’m doing the pee-pee dance, and repeatedly jut my arms out at my sides shaking them like I having a seizure or something. Of course I’m completely speechless.

Or, the more subtle approach is when both my hands immediately cover my gaping mouth and stay stuck there throughout the whole ordeal.

Okay… it’s not all that bad, but I think you get the picture.  Now, let’s move onto what I’m really here to talk about… identifying the pests you find in and about the garden.

Identify That Bug!

After capturing an insect, caterpillar, worm, etc., my first order of business is to properly identify it.  I am a firm believer that all gardeners need to make this important habit a regular part of their lives.

I can think of a number of reasons why properly identifying what’s lurking in and around your garden is important, but rather than bore you with a long list, I’ve narrowed it down to what I feel are the top three reasons.

Proper identification will help you to

1) make certain it’s not one of the good guys (a.k.a. beneficial insect)

2) determine the most effective pest control methods and application timing, and

3) visually identify the insect in its various life stages (i.e., eggs, nymphs, adult, moth)

1) Is It One of The Good Guys?

Just this point alone motivates me to do the necessary research in identifying what I’ve found, but this can be a tricky one because a lot of the good guys look almost identical to the rebel rousers you want so desperately out of your garden.  It requires patience and focused observation.

Tip: As I come across an unidentified bug within my garden, I log a photo of the it along with any pertinent information I’ve discovered through my research. I created my log using Word and a simple table, then I slip my nicely formatted pages into plastic page protectors and keep everything in a three-ring binder. Okay, stop it.  I can hear some of you cringing.  I know, I know… the computer age.  Trust me, I’m very comfortable with computers and have all of my originals well-organized {on my computer}, but as a gardener, I just find that it’s easier and less messy to grab my binder when I step outdoors.

In addition to searching for the identity of the bad guy, I also look for any beneficial/predatory insects that look similar to the one I’ve found.  I copy the photo and place it along side the bad guy’s photo making note of (for both the good and bad guy)…

  • it’s common and scientific name
  • identifying markings and size, and
  • in the case of the good guy, what it preys on

2) Determine Most Effective Pest Control and Timing

With the common and scientific name in hand, it’s now easier to really dig into researching your specific pest.  During your research, make certain to find out what others recommend for addressing your specific insect issue.  Also, be certain that the information you find is from a reputable source and the control methods tested and well documented.

To help, I’ve listed below a couple of great resources I discovered during my research.  One resource has lots of visuals and an awesome insect database.  The other, lists details on several common garden and agricultural pests which include temperature ranges, life cycle info, control methods and timing, etc.

From this point, you may decide to seek out even more information on your foe.  With the scientific name in your back pocket, it’s easy to Google it.

Side Note:  When doing my research, I always seek out holistic, organic and botanical control options with special attention to bee safety, and paying little attention to the “chemical” solutions.  With that said, I am obviously not a fan of chemical controls and I try to avoid them at all costs.  Also, just because it’s organic or botanical in nature does not automatically make it safe.  Even some of these options are harmful, especially to beneficials and predatory insects, as well as our soil (more good guys… microbes, fungi, bacteria, etc.), and even our own health.

Please, please, please…Hold on a second.  I’m a little verklempt… talk amongst yourselves.  I’ll give you a topic… The peanut is neither a pea nor a nut. Discuss.

Okay, now that I’ve taken a moment to regroup… please, take great care in what you put on your plants and in your soil.  Lives depend on it.

Here’s a great list of common organic controls and their impact on bees.

To support my passion, and a lot of yours I’m sure, using an integrated pest management (IPM) approach makes good sense for both my veggie garden and my orchard.  Though this approach has a place for chemical control (as a final solution if all else has fails), it supports its usage very responsibly.

3) Visually Identify Life Stages

Simply put, it’s being able to visually recognize the insect at all stages of its life… eggs, young (nymphs/larva), and of course, its adult state.  Being able to identify an insect, bug, worm or caterpillar early in its life will allow you to put your IPM strategy into play early in the game before the pest has a chance to become a real problem for you.

Yes, life does have a way of interfering with the best laid plans, but with this knowledge you will be better prepared for what may come next… at least where your garden’s concerned.


Stink BugThere are several books out there in the world on the subject of insect identification.  Unless you’re willing to shell out more than two pockets full of change for a bug encyclopedia, or two, or three, most insect reference books leave gardeners shrugging their shoulders clearly stating “I dun-know” when asked, “what is it?” by the shrieking person frantically tugging at the arm of their shirt.  At least, that’s been my experience to date (well, not the shrieking part, of course).

In my search to find an effective source that could help me to quickly identify an insect without having to ship it somewhere, or take a visit to my local cooperative extension office, I turned to the internet and came across two reputable resources listed below.

University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources – Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program

This site has GREAT info on several common garden and agricultural pests as well as extensive details regarding Integrated Pest Management. Their pest and IPM information is well documented, though I found their insect listing a bit lacking and it’s obviously California focused.  The site more than makes up for it with its vast and detailed gardening and pest control information.

Bug Guide

This site is awesome!  The most extensive visuals and insect listing I have ever seen.  And, if they don’t have what you’re looking for, you can send in a photo and they will identify it for you.

One word of caution: because of the site’s volume of insects, it can take a bit of getting used to.  I found the best approach is to start by finding an insect that has a similar shape, features, etc. by either scrolling through the visuals on the site or in a book.  You can scroll through until you come across something close to what you’re looking for then start drilling down until you locate an exact match.  If you find something close in a book, you can type the name in the site’s search field.  Using the common name at this point will help to keep your search broad until you’re able to dig in a little deeper.

Despite the site’s extensive database of visuals, categories and sub-categories, etc. it usually doesn’t take me long to find what I’m looking for.

Note:  This site really doesn’t provide pest control information.  It’s mainly for identification. But having the “real identity” of the insect you found makes it much easier to search for info on-line.

Hope this information helps.  Now onto the big question… who is “Stinky”.  Let’s have a little fun.  I’ll post the true identity on Tuesday, giving you a chance to identify it before I post the answer.  If you want to play along, just leave a comment with your answer 🙂

With all that said, happy gardening and pest hunting!

Sharing this week with…

The Chicken Chick

God Bless,




Filed under Pest Control

5 responses to “Identifying Pests

  1. lois

    I think I found it but will wait for your answer to compare with my find.

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