Jerry Brust, IPM Vegetable Specialist, University of Maryland; firstname.lastname@example.org
Normally at this time of year when I talk about any insect problems in crucifers I talk about harlequin bugs that feed by sucking out plant juices and inject toxins into the plant. But I have seen several fields and even some high tunnels with blister beetles feeding and defoliating several different vegetables such as tomato (including the fruit), leafy greens, crucifers, spinach and especially swiss chard (Fig. 1). Blister beetles begin feeding on the edges of leaves eventually leaving only stems (Fig. 1). The presence of blister beetles now is not unusual as they are often found in large clusters in late summer-early fall. They can arrive in large groups, seemingly overnight and can do a great deal of damage in a short period of time.
Adults are large, oblong beetles with relatively large heads, long ‘necks’ and usually with some stripes (but not always) (Fig. 2). Striped blister beetles are shades of gray or brown with yellow stripes running lengthwise on their wing covers (Fig. 2B). The ash-gray blister beetle is gray, the black blister is completely black, and the margined blister beetle is black with a grayish band around the edge of each wing cover (Fig. 2A). Blister beetle abdomens usually extend past their leathery wings. Striped blister beetles hide beneath plants during the hotter periods of the day, becoming active when temperatures are more suitable for them. If disturbed when on plants beetles will immediately fall to the ground and run. Adults begin laying eggs in late spring or early summer and continue through most of the season. A female can lay one to two hundred eggs just beneath the soil surface and eggs hatch within a couple of weeks.
Figure 1. Blister beetle feeding resulting in defoliation
If you look up blister beetles most of the literature deals with the beetles as a threat to horses and livestock. The beetles secrete and contain within them a blistering agent called cantharidin. Cantharidin is toxic if ingested and it persists in beetles long after they are dead. Humans who ingest the beetle can suffer severe damage to the urinary tract and gastrointestinal lining.
Pyrethroids can be used to control blister beetles on most vegetable crops. Pyrethroids will reduce the damage, but there is often a 7-day pre-harvest interval (phi) with some of the chemicals depending on what the crop is. So be sure to check the label to find the correct phi for the particular product you are using on the particular crop you are using it on. It should be noted that once established, beetles are difficult to eliminate completely.
Organic growers have an even more arduous task of managing them. Row covers will keep this pest as well as harlequin bugs off your plants. However, if row covers are not used then I often see diatomaceous earth (DE) recommended for beetle control. If it rains DE does not work very well and overall, I have not had much luck with it controlling the beetles. Spinosad alone or mixed with other products such as neem or kaolin clay have been found to reduce feeding damage in 24-48 hours. Having large numbers of grasshoppers near your vegetable fields over the years can increase blister beetle numbers greatly in the general area because the larvae feed on grasshopper eggs.
Figure 2. Margined (A) and Striped (B) blister beetles