Battling Japanese beetles

Japanese beetles attacking a vine. Photo by Meleah Maynard.

In the last half-hour since I came in from the garden, at least two Japanese beetles have flown out of my hair, headed for who knows where in my house.

But that was nothing compared to the one that just crawled boldly out of the waistband of my jeans. I squished it.

Just one week ago I was breathing a sigh of relief that our Southwest Minneapolis neighborhood seemed, once again, to be mostly dodging the Japanese beetle plague after being hit really hard in 2011. And then I spotted them on my roses — and the Virginia creeper and the grape vines and the river birch trees. Soon they will move on to other plants they love, including my basil, and I will hate them for that, especially.

I have been battling Japanese beetles in earnest for five days now and, as you probably already know from having experienced them yourselves, I am losing.

There are a lot of reasons for that; the biggest being that they are demons from hell and there is nothing mortals can do to stop them. But that aside, I also don’t like to use chemicals outside or inside, so my strategy for getting rid of them amounts to going around knocking them off of my plants and into a plastic bowl filled with soapy water.

Yes, I do wear a glove on the beetle scooping hand. I have heard anecdotally that the beetles can bite, but that has never happened to me. I just prefer to keep them off my hand skin whenever possible.

Before I say more about how to deal with these gross creatures, let me first explain a bit about Japanese beetles for those who have been living in a cave or condo for years, and/or are just new to the perils of gardening.

About the size of a dime with futuristic-looking gold and green bodies, Japanese beetles are actually kind of attractive if you’re into metallic bug robots. They were first spotted in Minnesota in 1968, but with the exception of a brief period in 2000 and 2001, they didn’t become much of a problem until about 2005.

The Japanese beetle life cycle is a short 60 days or so, but they can do a lot of damage in that amount of time. Females lay eggs beneath turf grass in the summer, and around June or early July the following year their offspring emerge and fly off to their favorite plants (they are attracted to about 300 different plant species) where they mate in zombie-like orgiastic piles while skeletonizing leaves and pooping everywhere. Pheromones released by the beetles during this whole scene, which I swear I am not exaggerating, attract more and more beetles, and in a short time the areas where they gather are both denuded of foliage and reeking to high heaven, as my grandma used to say.

Anyway, let’s get back to how to get rid of them. Because the pheromones they release attract more beetles, it’s best to reduce their numbers if you can. So, as I said earlier, I go around murdering them every day with a glove on one hand and a bowl of soapy water in the other. I do this by slipping the bowl under a bunch of them, and then I gently brush the beetle piles into the water and move on to the next spot. Even when they are not enraptured by beetle sex, these are not fast-moving creatures — unless they start to fly — so it’s pretty easy to knock hundreds of them into a bowl of water in about 20 minutes.

Here’s a tip: Don’t get super ambitious like I did today and try to brush a wide swath of them into the bowl at one time because loads of startled beetles will fly up and into your hair, your shirt pockets and your jeans. One even ricocheted off my lips.

And here’s another tip: Don’t hang up one of those Japanese beetle pheromone traps because work by attracting lots of beetles. The problem is they attract a whole lot more beetles to your yard than that trap will ever be able to deal with. Study after study has shown this and yet hardware stores keep selling out of these traps. Spread the word.

If you don’t handpick Japanese beetles or use ill-advised traps, all of the other reasonable-sounding ways to control them involve insecticides, either synthetic or organic, and most if not all of those are toxic to pollinators and other living things in one way or another.

I love my gardens and it pains me to see them torn apart by ravenous, sex-crazed beetles. But it doesn’t make sense to me to resort to chemicals that are known to be harmful, even when used according to their labels, which often advise spraying at night so the product will hopefully be dry by morning when bees start visiting plants.

What? No. I can live with a few beetles in my hair.


Check out Meleah’s blog,, for more gardening tips or to email her a question or comment.