What You Need to Know About Getting Rid of Japanese Beetles

It's June, and my email account is overflowing with pleas from desperate gardeners. What's the big disaster? Japanese Beetles. From a purely visual point of view, the iridescent green carapaces of these insects are lovely -- but the little beetles themselves are evil, evil, evil. They can devastate your beautiful raspberries and lay waste to your rose bushes in less time than it takes to assemble that new patio furniture you're so proud of. If your landscape is experiencing a Japanese beetle infestation, you probably don't need any more descriptions of the damage they're capable of.

There is a lot of confusion about getting rid of Japanese Beetles. I'm a San Francisco Bay Area resident transplanted to the Midwest, so this particular garden pest wasn't on my radar a decade ago. When I saw my first Japanese beetle, I thought it was cute. Imagine. Here are a few hard won JB facts I've learned that you should know about:

Stopping a New Japanese Beetle Infestation Cold (Homemade Repellant)

Japanese Beetles overwinter in the soil. If your property has been spared in the past and this year you decided to plant, say, rose bushes, you are making your landscape more attractive to Japanese beetles and should be prepared to deal with them when they emerge in late spring. Here's the part that can be difficult to get a handle on:

If you haven't had beetle problems before, here's how it works: Scouts will follow the scent of new, tasty plantings to your property. Once they realize that you have good greens on offer, they'll invite their friends to come along for a free meal. Natural Japanese beetle control works great in this situation because you probably don't have beetle grubs emerging from your soil (more on that in a second). Here's how natural control works:

Snag JB scouts in June when they start to emerge from the ground and toss them in a bucket of soapy water. They're big enough that you can just grab them with your garden gloved hands. If you're squeamish about this method, you can knock them into the bucket by holding it next to the plant and shaking the branch. Plop, the beetle lands in the water and dies soon thereafter. Now, leave the bucket with the dead beetles inside near the plants that seem to be attracting the bugs. (By all means, keep adding to the carnage in the bucket as you discover new beetles.) Arriving beetles will get the scent of dead beetles and steer clear.

When Nabbing Japanese Beetle Scouts Won't Work As Well

This will not work nearly as well if you had a beetle infestation last year. Instead of the emerging beetles from down the block flying to a new location (your property), the grubs are probably already in your soil. When they emerge, lunch (your roses and other lovely plants) are waiting for them like an all-you-can-eat buffet. They just hop onboard and start chewing. Think of them as pesky residents. Your shrubs and plants are the first stop on their to-do list.

Other Ways of Discouraging Japanese Beetles

If you've had problems with beetles in past seasons and think they may be in your soil, there are a number of methods you can use to get rid of them:

Herbal and Organic Sprays - There are lots of natural methods for killing an established beetle infestation. You will probably have spotty luck, though. There are millions of beetles out there, and for every one you evict, another will be along in a few minutes.

It may not be quite that discouraging, but when you see your flowers so completely covered with voracious beetles that their stems are actually bending under the weight -- well, that's a sad day. Natural insecticidal soaps kill beetles that come into physical contact with the wet spray, but spraying the plant won't kill beetles that ingest the soap. Neem extracts are another natural option.

Insecticides -Multiple and diligent applications of insecticide over the course of the summer months can control Japanese Beetles, but it won't eliminate them. This may seem like the most efficient choice, but it probably won't be as effective as you expect -- and you'll have to keep reapplying the insecticide regularly. Insecticides aren't selective, either. They kill the beetles, but they also kill beneficial insects like honey bees and lady bugs. The following insecticides kill Japanese beetles, but they aren't the only varieties that will do so.

For adults, you may have success with Malathion.To control grubs, some gardeners prefer Diazinon.

Check the labels at your garden center for options like: Sevin, Malathion, Rotenone, Diazinon, Ortho Bug-B-Gon and Spectracide.

Traps - Traps attract beetles and kill them. This sounds like a great idea, but because there are so many beetles in some areas of the country, attractants are like ringing the dinner bell. The traps don't catch all the beetles (the USDA suspects they capture about 75 percent of beetles that approach), and the survivors eat well and attract more beetles -- and more -- and more.

Nematodes - Nematodes are microscopic worms. You introduce them to your soil in spring or fall and they kill Japanese beetle grubs before they have a chance to emerge. There are lots of nematode varieties; some are beneficial in the garden and some are not. Using nematodes to control beetles can be a twofer: Nematodes that kill Japanese beetle grubs also kill other pests like flea beetles and bagworms. This is an all-natural option and nature's way of handling the problem, too. One nematode variety that kills Japanese beetles is the Heterorhabditis bacteriophora, but there are probably others, too. Ask your local garden shop for suggestions. Once you eliminate the next generation of beetles on your property, you can use another method, like an organic spray, to get rid of any wayward newcomers.

Milky Spore - This is another organic choice, a bacteria (Bacillus popillae-Dutky) that kills the grub stage of the beetle while it's in the soil (like nematodes) and isn't destructive to plants or beneficial garden insects. Milky spore reproduces in the dying grubs and creates a generation of millions of microscopic warriors blanketing your soil with organic Japanese beetle protection.

As with nematodes, this option won't help get Japanese beetles out of your backyard this season - it will help you control the pests next season and beyond, though. Milky spore comes in granule form. You can apply it to your lawn the way you would fertilizer.

Best Practices

You can see that the best way to control Japanese beetles is to tackle the problem before they become active on your property. After they're present in big numbers, your best option is:
  1. Deal with the infestation as best you can this season using herbal methods or insecticides.
  2. Apply nematodes or milky spore soil treatments to kill the immature stages of the pest before they emerge next year.
  3. Start watching for Japanese beetle scouts next year around the time they're scheduled to emerge and use the soapy water/bucket method to kill them and keep them from spreading the word to other beetles. You can contact your local Cooperative Extension Office to get a better idea of the date Japanese beetles are likely to emerge in your area. They're pretty reliable, and the experts can narrow it down to a two week period or so.
Plants that Attract Japanese Beetles

The easiest way to avoid problems with Japanese beetles is to steer clear of landscape plants and trees that attract them -- if you can bear to forgo some of these garden favorites. If you were a Japanese beetle, these plants and trees would be on your birthday wish list of tasty things to eat:

  • Althaea (Althaea spp.)
  • American mountain-ash (Sorbus americana)
  • Apple, crabapple (Malus spp.)
  • Apricot
  • Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)
  • Beech (Fagus grandifolia)
  • Birch (Betula spp.)
  • Black walnut (Juglans nigra)
  • Cardinal flower (Labelia cardinalis)
  • Cherry
  • Clematis (Clematis spp.)
  • Common mallow (Malva rotundifl ora)
  • Crape-myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)
  • Dahlia (Dahlia spp.)
  • Evening-primrose (Oenothera biennis)
  • Gladiolus (Gladiolus spp.)
  • Grape (Vitis spp.)
  • Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)
  • Hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos)
  • Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)
  • Horse-chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)
  • Japanese maple (Acer palmatum)
  • Larch (Larix laricina)
  • Linden, American, European (Tilia spp.)
  • Lombardy poplar  (Populus nigra var.)
  • Morning-glory (Ipomoea purpurea)
  • Norway maple (Acer platanoides)
  • Peach
  • Pennsylvania smartweed (Polygonum pensylvanicum)
  • Peony (Paeonia spp.)
  • Pin oak (Quercus palustris)
  • Plum
  • Red raspberry (Rubus idaeus)
  • Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbum)
  • Rose (Rosa spp.)
  • Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
  • Soybean (Glycine max)
  • Summer-sweet (Clethra spp.)
  • Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)
  • Sweet corn (Zea mays)
  • Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
  • Willow (Salix spp.)
  • Zinnia (Zinnia spp.)

[source: USDA]

Good luck and happy gardening.


Blue Horizon Farm. "How to Control Japanese Beetles In Your Organic Vegetable Garden."

Featured Creatures. "Japanese Beetle"

U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Managing the Japanese Beetle: A Homeowner's Handbook." (This is a free PDF download.)

University of Kentucky. "Japanese Beetles in the Urban Landscape." 2010.


Image 1 - JapaneseBeetlesWiki.jpg By D. Gordon E. Robertson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2 - JapaneseBeetlesWiki2.jpg By Lamba at the Italian language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

When You Kill Your Garden Plants (a Cautionary Tale)

Have you ever heard the old joke about putting in a garden?  The first year you install a garden, and the second year you install it again minus all your disastrous mistakes. Well, gardening is definitely one of those pursuits you learn by doing. 

If you spent the first part of May outdoors with adorable seedlings and a big bag of potting soil only to realize last weekend that some of those delightfully petite plants have just given up in a green puddle on the ground, don't throw in the trowel -- yet.  Gardening is like algebra. You have to get through the basic stuff (and master it), before you get to the really good stuff.  If you've ever held a perfect calla lily or rose bud raised to delicate perfection by your own hand, you know a few reassuring things novice gardeners don't, like:

You hardly ever get it right the first time out.

Every once in a while great things still manage to grow -- even when you screw-up big time.

You don't really know a plant until you've killed at least a couple of its brothers (cousins, sisters).  One failure won't make for a barren garden -- unless you give up trying.

If gardening were easy like, say, eating ice cream or watching reruns of Friends, everyone would do it.

Sometimes you can do everything right and still fail.  This is one of the hardest lessons of gardening (and maybe of life in general).  A successful garden, flowerbed or potted plant is a wonder of synchronicity -- things coming together in the right way at the right time. This year you may be trying to produce a huge pumpkin in the middle of a squash bug epidemic overflowing from your neighbor's zucchini patch.  Some things are just unpredictable.

After a few seasons, you learn to be a good guesser.  Don't underestimate the power of guessing well.  It's probably a better talent than being able to sing on key (karaoke notwithstanding).  It's like learning to do a complicated crossword puzzle -- the right solution just occurs to you. It isn't magic, though; you do have to work for it.  It goes something like this: 'Yikes, I don't want to put a dill plant over by the driveway. The afternoon breeze coming off the easement will knock it over. That's what happened last year. Hmm, this new plant looks like it may get top heavy and maybe a bit spindly.  The bed next to the driveway probably isn't a good spot for this little guy, either.'  Pretty soon you're making great guesses all over the place.  Call it experience.  Call it creative problem solving.  Call it intuition.  Whatever name you give it, guided guessing is great fun and makes gardening a lot easier.

In a new garden, even when things don't turn out the way you expect, your efforts aren't wasted.  You'll be working the soil, encouraging worms and other beneficial insects to put your property on their to-do list for next year; and you'll be formulating a strategy that will turn a future summer garden into something worthy of all your toil -- and then some.