Bacterial Wilt Problems in Cucurbits this Year

Jerry Brust, IPM Vegetable Specialist, University of Maryland;

In a sentinel plot of cucurbits (cantaloupe, cucumber, watermelon, pumpkin, etc.) near Cambridge, MD on the Eastern Shore and in a few other cantaloupe and cucumber fields are some of the worst cucurbit bacterial wilt (Erwinia tracheiphila) infections I have seen in the past 5-7 years. Most of the infected plants are still small and were fed on by cucumber beetles 2-2.5 weeks ago. The first sign of bacterial wilt infection is when leaves near the base of the plant wilt and turn a brownish-gray/green and then dry up (Fig. 1). Then other leaves on the vine with those first dying leaves will begin to flag and wilt in the mid-afternoon (Fig. 2). In a few more days the entire vine will wilt. Sometimes that maybe the only problem but often another vine will start to wilt and then another until the plant is dead. After bacteria enter the plant it takes anywhere from 2-4 weeks for an infected plant to wilt and die.

So far this year about 18% of the cantaloupe and cucumber plants have begun to wilt. Normally I see 3-6% of plants wilt down at this plant size. I don’t think it was an unusually high striped cucumber beetle population (these beetles act as vectors for E. tracheiphila) although a few areas had very high numbers (15-20/plant). It appears that a greater percentage of beetles were carrying the bacteria than what we would normally encounter. In Figure 3 this level of feeding damage would usually lead to about 35-40% of the plants going down to bacterial wilt, this year it is 65-75% of plants like this going down to wilt.

Under this sort of pressure applying neonics to plants while they were in the tray or that were drenched at planting (which is usually sufficient) often will not be enough to hold back beetle transmission of the bacteria 7-10 days after treatment. Foliar sprays with pyrethroids would be needed. But how do you know when more beetles are going to act as vectors—you don’t. And that is the problem, next year do you over treat because of one outlier season or continue with what you have been doing? My guess is that this is a onetime blip that so many more beetles were infective than normal. If your cantaloupe or cucumber plants look good and do not have any more than the usual amount of bacterial wilt you can consider your striped cucumber beetle management to be good.

Figure 1. The base-leaves of an infected vine begin to wilt and then dry up and die

Figure 2. After 7-10 days leaves on the infected vine become flaccid

Figure 3. Heavy beetle feeding on cantaloupe plant