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Thursday, April 5, 2012

What to watch for: flea beetles in strawberries?

When Duplin County extension agent John McIntyre called me asking about flea beetles in strawberries, I was skeptical.  Flea beetles are common pests in tobacco & vegetables in North Carolina and one species feeds on grapes, but I had never heard of flea beetles as pests in strawberries.  I figured that whatever damage was present was likely due to our bumper crop of caterpillars or other, more typical pests. However, when he sent me these pictures, it was clear that the beetles pictured were flea beetles or something very similar and that feeding damage was from them.

Two adult flea beetles on strawberry foliage. The "lacy" feeding damage is characteristic of many foliar feeding beetles. Photo: John McIntyre, Duplin County NCCE.

Adult flea beetle with John's figure for size reference. Photo: John McIntyre, Duplin County NCCE.

Also present on leaves and tunneling into at least one strawberry fruit were what appear to be the larvae of these same beetles. After seeing these images, my first thought was that theses beetles looked an awful lot like grape flea beetle, a relatively common early season grape pest whose adults and larvae both feed on developing buds and foliage in grapes.  See here for a nice set of images from Michigan State University of grape flea beetle adults and larvae.  It turns out that grape flea beetle (Altica chalybea) has a close relative known as the strawberry flea beetle (Altica ignita), so it's possible that that these may be either species or a completely different critter.  John brought samples of the larvae and adults by my office this evening, and I'll identify them over the weekend and post an update here.

So, now that I believe we're dealing with a flea beetle, what should the affected growers do?  I do not think that the foliar injury in the images above will result in yield loss, and I suggested that the growers not treat if only foliar feeding was present.  However, one larva John found had tunneled into a strawberry.  If lots of larvae are present and potentially feeding on fruit, this is of much greater concern.  Unfortunately, most of the pesticides effective against flea beetles are broad spectrum and may flare spider mites in strawberries, which have already become problematic in strawberries this spring throughout the southeast.  There is one narrower spectrum material that might work can be organic as well, and I suggested to John that if larvae were present, this might be the best choice.  See a note about pesticide recommendations.

Update, 10 April 2012
I took the adult beetle and larval samples to Dave Stephan, insect identification expert at the NC State University Plant Disease and Insect Clinic this afternoon. Dave agreed that it does indeed look like it is from the genus Altica, but he suspected that they were too small to be grape flea beetle.  He is going to run them through a key to determine if they are strawberry flea beetles or something else entirely!

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