Flea Beetle Management

Posted: June 1, 2015

Flea beetles have emerged from their overwintering homes in the shrubby or wooded areas surrounding fields and begun to feed on the first spring brassica plantings. This article from UMass Extension's Vegetable Notes (Vol.27 Number 6) has great information on flea beetle management.
Effect of push/pull system. Kale treated with Surround is protected from damage (top and bottom) while untreated bok choy (center) draws flea beetles, where they can be sprayed (hopefully before they cause this much damage!). Credit: UMass Extension.

Effect of push/pull system. Kale treated with Surround is protected from damage (top and bottom) while untreated bok choy (center) draws flea beetles, where they can be sprayed (hopefully before they cause this much damage!). Credit: UMass Extension.

Controlling flea beetles can seem like a losing battle, but we have seen real success on farms that have taken an integrated approach to management. The most important steps to reducing the population size and damage caused by flea beetles seem to be breaking the cycle (rotating spring crops as far as possible from overwintering sites near last years' fall crop), and controlling early season outbreaks using something like a trap crop or a "push-pull" approach to prevent the problem from spiraling out of control within the season or from building up to unmanageable levels over the years.

Life Cycle

The crucifer flea beetle (Phyllotreta cruciferae) is uniformly black and shiny, while the striped flea beetle (Phyllotreta striolata) has two yellow stripes on its back. Both are about 2 mm in length and hop away when disturbed. These flea beetles only feed on brassica crops; those found on corn or solanaceous crops are different species. Though they prefer the tender leaves of Brassica rapa & B. juncea crops such as arugula, tatsoi, mizuna, bak choi, and mustard, they will also feed on the more waxy Brassica oleracea crops such as broccoli, cabbage, kale and collard. Their feeding damage--small, round holes on leaves or leaf margins, which can coalesce to form large holes as leaves mature--can destroy or delay maturity in seedlings and reduce yield and marketability of older plants. The adults in fields now will lay their eggs in the soil. Larvae will feed on the root hairs of brassica crops, pupate underground, and emerge as adults in late July to feed on fall brassicas before moving outside of the field for the winter.


Break the cycle

Plant spring crops far from fields where fall brassicas were grown, and where flea beetles will overwinter. When overwintering beetles emerge, if they can't find a host plant they will not survive and reproduce and you will reduce the population of flea beetles on your farm. You can also starve the overwintering beetles by delaying planting until July. This may not easily fit your markets, but it does work. With no food or place to lay eggs, the overwintered adults leave the area, instead of reproducing and emerging in time for midsummer dining. It may take 2-3 years to bring populations down. Control weeds at the same time. The best protection for a spring brassica planting is isolating the crop from where the beetles would have overwintered, near last years' fall crop. Finally, separate your fall crop from the spring crop, since second generation flea beetles will emerge at the same time that fall cole crops will be at their most vulnerable. These second generation adults are also the beetles that overwinter, so next spring, plan to use a field distant from previous late-season brassica fields. After harvests, till crop residue immediately to uproot and kill underground larval populations.

Row covers

Floating row cover provides the most effective protection from flea beetles, especially in spring and early summer. It is expensive in both materials and time, but it works. It is critical to seal the edges immediately after seeding, because brassica seeds germinate quickly and beetles rapidly find the cotyledons. Flea beetles can fit through small openings - not to mention the large holes and tears that often develop in row cover over time. Edges of the cover must be sealed on all sides using soil, black plastic bags filled with soil, or some other method. Fortunately hoops are not needed on brassica crops, but management is still time-consuming because the cover has to be removed for cultivation. Replace it as soon as possible to avoid letting beetles in.

Other insect barriers, such as Proteknet, Biothrips, and Filbio, are available in a range of mesh sizes and can be used to protect against a variety of pests, including flea beetles. These provide less heat and greater air circulation than spunbonded row covers, though for early spring crops, the additional warming benefit of traditional row covers of various weights may be preferred.

Chemical control

Maturing plants should be scouted frequently. When plants are young, an average of 1 beetle per plant or 10% average leaf damage is a reasonable threshold for chemical intervention. Several synthetic pyrethroids (Group 3A), carbamates (Group 1A), neonicotinoids (Group 4A, either as foliar or soil drench), and the relatively new diamide class (Group 28) are labeled for flea beetle in brassicas. Avoid repeated use of one type of chemistry over multiple generations or using both soil and foliar applications of the same group. Note that as of 2012, the registration for Thionex has been cancelled and is no longer allowed on cole crops. Soil-applied systemic insecticides, such as Admire Pro and Actara can provide longer term control against damage, although beetles may still be seen when scouting. Products containing the new active ingredient cyantraniliprole, a diamide (Exirel for foliar applications; Verimark for soil), are labeled for flea beetle and have been shown in trials to have good efficacy against this pest. Be aware that systemic insecticides may have longer days to harvest intervals. With foliar sprays, even if good control was achieved, re-infestations can occur rapidly and may require additional sprays.

For organic farmers, the choice of chemistries includes spinosad (Entrust) and pyrethrin (Pyganic). In UMass trials, Entrust showed the greatest efficacy in suppressing flea beetles and reducing damage, while Pyrethrin (Pyganic EC 5) showed poor to moderate efficacy in our trials but is reported by growers to cause a significant short-term knockdown. Abby Seaman, NYS IPM, found in 2012 trials that both kaolin (Surround WP) and hot pepper wax worked well. They did not prevent enough feeding for salad greens to be marketable, but they did prevent enough feeding for broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc. to outgrow the damage. In 2013 NYS trials, Entrust, as well as both Venerate and Grandevo, two OMRI-approved bioinsecticides, were all found to significantly reduce damage from flea beetle on cabbage under low pest pressure. Another promising organic product is Azera, a mix of azadirachtin and pyrethrins. A 2011 University of Maryland trial found that Azera significantly reduced flea beetle feeding damage, and that mixed with Surround, it both reduced feeding damage and maintained efficacy over time.

Control brassica weeds

Brassica weeds also harbor flea beetles (both adults and larvae) and reduce the efficacy of your crop rotation schemes that aim to break the pest cycle by changing crop families. Yellow rocket, wild mustard, and shepherd's purse are familiar weeds that are widespread in fields and roadsides. The list of weed hosts probably also includes garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), a serious invasive weed in the brassica family. It is a biennial with white blooms in spring (May). It thrives in roadsides and field edges as well as shady woodlands, and has rapidly spread throughout Massachusetts. A good fact sheet on garlic mustard can be found here or through the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England (IPANE) website.

Trap cropping

Take advantage of the flea beetle's preferences for particular brassicas by using the preferred species or varieties as a draw. Their numbers will build up in the more attractive plants, and are less likely to move into or stay in those less preferred. A border or even a middle row planted to Brassica rapa or B. juncea crops such as Komatsuna, tatsoi, mizuna, bak choi, and mustard has been shown to reduce numbers and feeding damage on less preferred B. oleracea crops such as broccoli, cabbage, or traditional kale (eg, Winterbor types). Red Russian kale (B. napus) and Lacinato kale (B. oleracea) seem to be of intermediate attractiveness.

To make it work, here's some tips:

  • Make sure the trap crop is established before the main crop (the one you are trying to protect) or is at least as big (e.g. transplanted same day). Direct-seeded crops can be used around transplants if seeded 7-14 days earlier.
  • Use a fast-growing, vigorous cultivar for the trap crop.
  • Use a border crop to prevent beetles from moving farther into the field. Traps at ends of rows help make a complete perimeter, which stops beetles coming from all directions. Interior trap crops also can act as a 'sink' within the field.
  • Spray only the trap crop to kill the accumulated beetles, and avoid having to spray the main crop. You also want to keep the trap crop viable enough to do its work, and potentially be harvestable as well. Use a longer-residual product, if possible.
  • Combine with a repellent on the main crop. Surround WP and garlic sprays can be used for this purpose.

A variation on this theme is the push-pull system, in which most of the brassica crop is treated with a repellent such as Surround, to "push" the beetles to a sensitive crop (e.g. bok choy or mustard), which is left untreated. This strategy limits the amount of time and material used in controlling the pest, since you only need to spray the "pull" crop, instead of all of the brassica acreage with an insecticide. The trick is to catch the beetles on the sensitive crop before they cause too much damage there, or make the "pull" crop something you don't intend to harvest, like an extra row of direct-seeded mustard. We saw this work really well on a farm in MA where flea beetles had built up to very high levels and were a major production challenge. When the farmers combined this strategy with crop rotation, separating spring from fall fields and going into a field that had been out of brassicas several years, the results were impressive. So there is hope!

Resource: Hazzard, R. "Materials for Beating Flea Beetles in Brassicas". New England Vegetable and Fruit Conference, 2005 Conference Proceedings

Updated by L. Mckeag and S. Scheufele, UMass Extension, Vegetable Program.

UMass Extension Vegetable Notes, Vol.27 Number 6 (original article)