The subtropical climate that makes Central Florida such a desirable place for humans to live during winter months has a downside, as it’s also very agreeable to a variety of insect pests that infest your yard. And by the way, it’s something of a misconception that the freezing winter temperatures of northern locales kill them off. According to Farmer’s Almanac, “Cold winters do not kill as many bugs as you might think. All insects possess some ability to endure cold weather.”
However, like people, pleasant weather encourages destructive lawn and garden bugs to be more active – and, therefore, more likely to do serious damage. Here is our list of the most common pests to look out for, and how to prevent them from ruining your lawn.
Chinch Bugs – Small, but Deadly to Lawns
This deceptively harmless-looking insect feeds by draining the sap from grass while injecting a toxin until it withers. Making it more difficult to identify is the fact that its appearance changes throughout its lifecycle. As described by University of Florida IFAS Gardening Solutions, “Young chinch bugs are orange with a white stripe across their back. As they grow older, they emerge as black, winged adults. The final stage of the lifecycle is an adult with black and white wings and orange legs. Even at this stage they are only a fifth of an inch long, about the length of a grain of rice. At this size they can be hard to spot.”
Chinch bugs hide in between the sheaths of the leaf blades and in the thatch layer in the turf. Damaged areas appear as yellow to brown patches. The center of these areas may be dead and bare. As not all brown grass indicates a chinch bug infestation, University of Florida IFAS Gardening Solutions recommends inspecting the border between the brown and green grass for the tiny, black-and-white adults or orange nymphs.
Injury typically occurs first in grass that’s water-stressed or in full sun, so making sure your lawn gets adequate irrigation is essential. Our blog post – “How to Water Your Central Florida Lawn” – covers this topic in detail. LawnStarter recommends removing excessive thatch as the best way to prevent chinch bugs from establishing themselves. For winter, overseed your lawn with a grass seed resistant to chinch bug damage. Use pesticides only as a last resort, as they can kill beneficial insects – such as big-eyed bugs (yes, this is the name) and ground beetles – that eat chinch bugs.
Cutworms – Cutting Their Way Through Your Lawn
Cutworms are 2-inch long caterpillars that chew on turfgrass near the soil surface. During the day, cutworms hide in the lawn’s thatch layer. They come out at night to dine on the grass, and are most active during the spring and early summer.
Signs of infestation include circular patches of dead grass with small burrow holes (like ball marks on putting greens). Cutworm damage is most noticeable on grass less than ½-inch tall. Also look for birds, armadillos, raccoons and skunks on your lawn hunting for them.
The best prevention method is thatch removal. To treat an infestation, natural control agents include Bacillus thuringiensis var. Kurstaki – A bacterium that produces a toxin that paralyzes the caterpillar’s gut and stops it from feeding. There’s also Steinernema carpocapsae – a nematode that penetrates the cutworm. It introduces a bacterium and causes an infection inside the host. Nematodes are sold online and in garden centers.
Chemical insecticides that target cutworms are another option. When choosing a pesticide, consider information relating to air and water quality, resistance management, and the pesticide’s properties and application timing. Always read the product label, and follow application instructions.
Fall Armyworms – On the March to Destroy Your Central Florida Lawn
The name of this lawn pest is somewhat misleading, as fall armyworms are also active in spring. They are green to brown colored caterpillars when young, and dark brown when they mature. They reach up to 1.5 inches long and have a dark head marked with a light colored inverted Y. Fall armyworms ultimately emerge as brown moths with white-tipped forewings, and have a 1.5 inch wingspan.
According to University of Florida IFAS, fall armyworms feed on all grass, but prefer Bermuda grass, feeding mainly in the early morning and late evening. They tend to be more of a problem on newly established turf, especially if it was heavily fertilized in late summer. Look for large, bare areas of ground in your lawn, and brown moths flying around your landscaping lights at night. If you suspect fall armyworms are the reason for your lawn’s bare spots, test by mixing one tablespoon of liquid dish soap in one gallon of water. Pour onto a four-foot by four-foot area of grass near the damage. If fall armyworms are present, they’ll crawl to the surface.
As with chinch bugs, avoid treating with pesticides, as you’ll kill their natural predators. To attract their natural predators, plant nectar-producing flower plants that draw ladybugs, parasitic wasps, lacewings and minute pirate bugs. Introduce beneficial nematodes like Steinernema carpocapsae and Heterorhabditis bacteriophora. Apply Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that kills armyworms in their larval stage.
Mole Crickets – Disturbing in Appearance; Destructive in Action
This lawn pest looks like a small-scale movie monster – an unnerving cross between a mole and a cricket. They are uniformly brown, and adults are about 1 ½ inches long. They have large front legs for digging, which look similar to mole paws. They’re a serious pest notorious for tunneling through lawns and causing major damage to grass. Mole crickets are active throughout the year but become more prevalent in Florida during the winter, due to their preference for moist soil. They can damage any grass, but prefer St. Augustine, Bahia and Bermuda grass.
Look for the following signs of mole cricket infestation:
- Brown spots of dead or dying grass.
- Small mounds of brown soil.
- Armadillos and birds on your lawn hunting for food.
Like actual moles, mole crickets are nocturnal, so look for them in the evening. If you don’t want to wait, perform the soapy water test described above to see if they emerge. They are best controlled by maintaining a healthy lawn, and such biological means as parasitic nematodes. The nematode species Steinernema scapterisci infiltrates the mole cricket’s body, then reproduces and releases a bacterium that kills the insect.
Sod Webworms – Tearing Through Your Central Florida Lawn
The sod webworm is nothing but trouble through and through. Caterpillars are cream-colored with brown spots on each segment and a dark, yellowish brown head. They grow to a full length of slightly less than a half-inch. Sod webworms emerge as brown moths with splotchy triangular-shaped wings and are about ¾-inch wide. They are present throughout the year, with significantly higher numbers in the fall (September–November). This is when they can become very destructive, with little time for your grass to recover before the slower growth of winter.
Look for the following signs of sod webworm infestation:
- Piles of bright green droppings.
- Thinning grass and brown patches.
- Ragged grass blades, shorter than the nearby grass.
- Grass blades are notched as if sections have been chewed off.
- The lawn has webs of grass, feces, and other debris. Caterpillars make them to prepare their cocoons.
If you’re noticing a pattern here, proper lawn maintenance is the best way to prevent sod webworms from establishing themselves. Another pattern – natural treatment is best! Bacterial-based insecticides Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki and aizawai help control sod webworms without harming beneficial organisms. If the infestation is severe, apply a pesticide labeled for caterpillar control.
White Grubs – From Ancient Egypt to Modern Florida Lawn Pest
Although it sounds like a single insect species, white grub is actually a general term for all scarab beetle larvae. Despite the mystical legends of ancient Egypt the scarab beetle may invoke, its larvae is an everyday lawn pest here in Central Florida. They feed on the roots of all turfgrass species, and live at or just below the soil-thatch interface. White grubs rest in a curled C-shape and are about ½ to 2 inches long.
Initial, mild damage from the grubs will leave areas of yellow grass, which is a symptom that is hard to correctly diagnose. Major damage will result in large areas of dead grass. This kind of damage becomes noticeable in late summer to early fall, particularly when the grass is stressed by drought. Look for evidence by cutting down about 2 inches into the grass at the edge of an off-colored area. Cut around three sides of a 1-foot square piece of sod and then pull back the flap of sod you’ve cut free. If the turf is easily pulled away from the soil, that means there are few to no roots on it. If there are grubs present, they are likely the reason. Additional evidence of infestation can be found in adult beetles flying around outdoor lights at night.
Because any one of many beetle species could be responsible, treating them yourself runs the risk of failure. Even if you favor natural remedies, calling in a licensed pest control professional may be the best option. Again, conscientious lawn maintenance can go a long way in preventing white grubs from taking up residence.
Fire Ants – A Menace to People and Pets
Last, but certainly not least, are fire ants. Although they don’t feed on plants, they’re a serious pest in Central Florida lawns. As University of Florida IFAS Extension so eloquently puts it, “Fire ants are notorious for their painful, burning stings that result in pustules and intense itching, which can persist for up to ten days. If the pustules are broken, infections may occur. Some people even have allergic reactions to fire ant stings. Besides attacking humans, fire ants also sting pets, livestock, and wildlife.
“Native to South America, fire ants are considered an invasive species in the United States. These aggressive insects are reddish-brown to black and from one-eighth to one-quarter of an inch long.”
Fire ants build large dirt mounds, but are also found in rotting logs, and around trees and stumps. Unfortunately, fire ants are almost impossible to eradicate permanently once they’ve established a colony. This is why it’s essential to prevent them from moving into your yard. Keep your yard clear of debris, remove logs and have tree stumps removed. Their favored food sources are carbohydrates (fruits, sugars and syrups); proteins (insects and meat); and lipids (grease, lard and oils from seeds). So pick up fallen fruit immediately if you have fruit trees, don’t let meaty pet food sit outdoors for long, and don’t pour kitchen grease out in your yard.
The Take-Home Message
We hope you got the message that proper, consistent lawn maintenance is the ounce of prevention worth the pound of cure. Of course, we also know that there are many reasons why you may not be able to perform all the chores necessary to make your property attractive to you – and your neighbors – and unattractive to lawn pests. That’s what we’re here for! Our experienced professionals at Daniel’s Lawn Service & Pressure Washing specialize in lawn maintenance – as well as landscaping, landscape design, tree services, tree stump removal, pressure washing, and more. Visit our website to learn about our services and contact us so we can do the work and you can do the enjoying!