Is That Bug What I Think It Is?

The nymphs of many garden bugs can look a lot alike—work with your county extension office to figure out if what you’re looking at is a friend or foe.

by Kevin Fogle
PHOTO: Anne Worner/Flickr

This afternoon, while inspecting my late-summer garden, I came across several small, vividly colored insects on a winter squash blossom. At first glance, I thought I was looking at several immature assassin bug nymphs on the hunt. Assassin bugs are wonderful beneficial insects that consume a wide range of pest species in the garden and should be encouraged. But then I realized that these little nymphs were immature leaf-footed bugs, which aren’t beneficial at all and are actually quite nefarious.

Why To Be Weary Of Leaf-Footed Bug Nymphs

Leaf-footed bugs are a confirmed garden nuisance in many regions of North America, including portions of California and many states in the Eastern Seaboard, spanning from as far north as New York down to Florida. While the leaf-footed bug family is composed of several closely related species, these insect pests all use their piercing sucking mouthparts to feed on our favorite foods, like tomatoes, a range of vegetables, nut crops, and several fruit species.

While the immature nymphs of assassin bugs and leaf-footed bugs look quite similar, several clues helped pinpoint the proper identification. First, the legs of these particular insects were too short and dark in color. Second, the collective social behavior of the nymphs was very telling—assassin bugs tend to be solitary hunters unlike immature leaf-footed bugs, which stay clustered after hatching from their eggs.

Lean On Your Cooperative Extension

Most gardeners can easily ID adult insects that they encounter either through published insect guides, university resources, entomological websites or garden centers. However, identifying immature insect nymphs can be a challenge for gardeners, as the nymphs of many pest and beneficial species share little to no resemblance with their adult forms. When you’re unsure if what you’re looking at is a good bug or bad bug to be, your local extension agent is your best friend. They often can point you to a entomological expert who may be able to look at a photo or examine a captured specimen to help you determine what insect you’re dealing with and offer potential treatment strategies for pest species.

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