Why are flea beetles called flea beetles and why do people want to get rid of flea beetles? Let's just say flea beetles can jump, like fleas, get it? And if you have been waking up to a garden that looks like it's been blasted with a shotgun, don't worry the mob doesn't have contracts out on your cabbage; that's the result of flea beetles feeding on your cabbage, sprouts, tomatoes, peppers, and other delicious vegetables. Flea beetles are notoriously hard to control because almost every locale has several species of flea beetle, with each species having very particular tastes. This makes crop rotation and polycultural planting techniques less effective than they are with other garden pests. Your tomatoes might be doing fine on one side of your garden, while your potatoes are getting drilled by tuber flea beetles on the other side of your garden.
Nevertheless, there is plenty of literature available on the control and management of beetle populations, and I've taken it upon myself to boil that information down to an easy to read guide for getting rid of flea beetles. We'll start with the least intensive control measures and work our way to last resorts. These measures can be used as standalone techniques or they can be combined to create a system of pest control called integrated pest management—the integration of several chemical-free flea beetle control strategies.
Getting Rid of Flea Beetles
The first measure to be taken is to do a polycultural planting, making sure to break up plants that are susceptible to flea beetle damage with plants that flea beetles rarely touch. Flea beetles, for the most part, are attracted to small seedlings of common European vegetable crops. These crops would include cabbages, lettuces, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, kale, eggplant and a host of different food plants. You may want to try planting ornamental plants between rows of vegetables, thus hampering the migration of flea beetles from plant to plant. If this means planting something you might consider to be weeds, so be it.
If you'd rather not have your vegetables competing with ornamentals for nutrition, you can always try the trap crop method to get rid of flea beetles. This method involves growing certain species of plants that are more favorable to flea beetles than the crop you're trying to protect. Usually these are planted several feet away from your vegetables. A good example of a trap crop would be either Giant Mustard plants or Daikon Radishes.
Ensuring that your plants are getting plenty of water and nutrients will help them better resist flea beetles and avoid feeding damage. This might sound like common sense, but plants that are being stressed by a lack of water or fertilizer can be destroyed by flea beetles overnight. A good watering and fertilizing regiment can mean the difference between enjoying fresh tomatoes on a dinner salad or waking up to a row of dead tomato plants.
Food grade diatomaceous earth will help get rid of flea beetles or prevent adult flea beetles from feeding on plants. Diatomaceous earth is an incredible thing. It's a soil composed of fossilized, microscopic algae with razor sharp edges, which are non-toxic to most mammals but fatal to bugs and insects that come into contact with it. Dusting your plants with diatomaceous earth has been shown to reduce adult flea beetle feeding to a tolerable level in areas where flea beetle populations have gotten out of hand.
Botanical pesticides are some of he most effective means to getting rid of flea beetles, but they should be used as a last resort. Oils and extracts like Neem, Sabadilla, Rotenone, and Pyrethrins are considered to be the more effective botanical pesticides labeled for use on flea beetles. Mixed with an oil, as suggested by the ATTRA, botanicals like rotenone can be almost 100% effective at killing flea beetles when sprayed on infested plants.
Benefits of Integrated Flea Beetle Control
Integrated pest management allows us to stagger, mix and match, or choose standalone options for controlling garden pests like the flea beetle. If one technique doesn't work, you can always supplement it with one or more other techniques until control and management of your flea beetle population is achieved. While it is very difficult to achieve complete control of a beetle population using cultural, physical, and biological pest control techniques, IPM allows us to retain many of the beneficial insects and creatures that help to maintain a healthy garden. This is why we list botanical pesticides as a last resort: because botanicals are broad-spectrum solutions to a particular problem. The chances of killing off many beneficial insects while trying to control one specific insect is greater as you start to use both organic and synthetic pesticides. All of this is without mentioning the possible health hazards of using pesticides on vegetable gardens in the first place.
Just keep this in mind when you are planning your next attack on the flea beetles in your garden, and check out some of the natural and organic controls we've offered for you here. Enjoy.