Bugging Out


// by Tracy Jones

As summer approaches, oftentimes scattered patches of dead grass can crop up in local yards. But area experts warn that dry yards don’t suffer solely from lack of water—barren patches could be the result of small (sometimes microscopic) pests causing irreversible damage.

Nearly all yards in Northeast Florida have St. Augustine grass, says Eileen Buss, associate professor and extension specialist for the University of Florida's Entomology and Nematology Department, and the number one pest in this type of grass is the chinch bug.

“Most people would agree there's not anything beneficial about chinch bugs,” Buss says.

Chinch bugs have piercing, sucking mouths that kill grass tissue, making it impossible for the plant to withstand its damage. The younger chinch bugs, nymphs, are red with a white band and cannot fly, while the adults are black with white wings that have black on the tips, says Erin Harlow, a commercial horticulture agent with the Duval County Extension Office.

“Chinch bugs will infest dry, hot areas first, usually near driveways and sidewalks,” says Harlow.

Big-eyed bugs, which look very similar to chinch bugs, are a biological predator for chinch bugs, and an expert can help differentiate the two, she says.

The only solution for chinch bugs, says Adam Jones, vice president, director of quality assurance for Massey Services, is to cut out the damaged grass and replace it. When purchasing sod or plugs to fill in the patches, Buss advises to check the newly purchased grass for caterpillars or other pests, so new pests won't be introduced to the landscape.

There are also many companies that provide preventative services to block the bugs before the damage can happen.

Another common pest is tropical sod webworms, which are typically seen near the end of summer. The adults are dingy-brown and form a triangle shape when resting, Harlow says. The larvae are cream to green with black dots along each body segment, and have a brown-yellow head. The larvae feed at night and eat the grass blades.

“They lay their eggs on grass blades and may rest in the landscape plants,” says Harlow. “People tend to notice them when they fly as homeowners walk through their yards.”

Webworm damage can make a yard significantly less greener, with an underlaying blanket of dead grass with a few blades of green grass growing through it in the damaged patches of grass. This can appear in various sizes. Many webworms are also found on newly planted sod, Jones says.

“If that happens, the plant doesn't have a lot of resources to recover from,” Jones says. Chemical treatment is required for a yard to recover from webworms.

Another insect common in North Florida yards is the lubber, a Southeastern variety of the common grasshopper that is larger than most (adults usually range between six and eight centimeters). Their size is misleading in terms of their destruction, though—according to scientists at the University of Florida, they require far less food material than most of the more injurious grasshopper species. Grasshopper abundance is best managed via vegetation. If deprived of their favorite food, lubbers will most likely leave or die off (so mowing grass and keeping standing water out of irrigation ditches is helpful). Experts say that keeping yards maintained tends to keep most pests away—be they grasshoppers or larger pests.

“The best way to keep pests and diseases out of lawns is to properly maintain the turf,” Harlow says. “This would include inspecting and updating the irrigations system to have good efficiency and coverage, irrigating and fertilizing at the appropriate rate and time, mowing at the correct height for the turf and reducing overall stress.”

This includes turning off automatic sprinkler systems during heavy rain, says Jones.

When treating for bugs, Buss warns not to treat tall trees, a job that should be left to an arborist. She also says to be careful when using insecticide to control pests, especially around ornamentals or turf grass.

Buss also cautions those new to Florida to develop new yard treatment techniques because of the vastly different landscape.

“There are enough complexities, especially with ornamentals, if you don't know what you're doing, you could make some problems worse,” Buss says. “If you can keep your yard fairly healthy, the vulnerability from plants to pests can decrease.”