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Golden tortoise beetles can bug some plants

While harvesting the last of the lettuce that shared a bed with some sweet potato vine, I noticed what I thought was a gold earring on the underside of one of the sweet potato vine leaves. Unfortunately it was not a harmless earring at all but a golden tortoise beetle.

Fascinatingly beautiful, this beetle is almost unbelievable. It literally looks like a lady bug or other similarly sized beetle that has been dipped in gold. A bit smaller than the common red with black polka dotted lady bug, the golden tortoise beetle has a few other interesting characteristics that add to its unusual nature.

Several things in nature can change color at will and the golden tortoise beetle is one of them. Much like the chameleon, the side swimming flounder and the seasonal changing fur of the arctic fox, the golden tortoise beetle has the ability to change color whenever it chooses. Microscopic valves allow the beetle to alter the level of moisture beneath its shell, changing the color from a shiny gold to a dull red with black spots.

Itís not known why the beetle changes color, but perhaps it is so it will blend in with similar sized beetles. I know if I had the ability to be gold I would want to be gold all the time.

When the golden tortoise beetle is in its larva stage, it will molt and rather than leaving the molt behind, it will carry it on its back much like a parasol. If this is not unusual enough, the beetle will also carry excrement on its back with the molts and when approached by a predator, will fling the excrement covered molt at the enemy.

As delightful as these beetles look, they can become a nuisance in the garden and flower beds. They especially like to eat morning glories and sweet potato vine. They tend to like tomato leaves and those of eggplant as well. They leave a pattern of holes that usually wonít kill the plants but leaves (no pun intended) them looking rather unattractive.

The beetles feed on the underside of leaves and are not noticeable until you see the holes or, like in my case, actually make a habit of looking at the underside of leaves. So much can go on there without our knowledge.

Itís not difficult to control these pretty little beetles. A bit of insecticidal soap makes the leaves unpalatable for the beetles and they will go to your neighborsí yard. You can make your own insecticidal soap by simply mixing a teaspoon or two of environmentally friendly dish soap in a spray bottle with water. Spray the undersides of the leaves each morning until you donít see the beetles hanging around anymore.

Hand picking the bugs is effective. They are easy to see, especially against the light green and chartreuse leaves of morning glory or sweet potato vine. Placing the beetles in a bucket of soapy water will kill them, but you might want to think twice about that.

The beetles can actually be beneficial, as they will migrate to weeds if there is nothing else available to eat. By making the desirable plants inhospitable, the beetles might take a liking to weeds growing in and around the yard.

Bindweed, thistle, horse nettle and burdock are common weeds in our region and golden tortoise beetles will eat them.

Mother Nature provides for us and all the creatures in a healthy ecosystem. A garden without bugs is not healthy.

Published: June 13, 2011
New Article ID: 2011706139958