Sunflower damage

hazelinok(7)July 27, 2014

This is one of the saddest things I've seen today.

After searching the forum for answers on what is eating up my sunflower leaves and now my first sunflower, I've decided it's caterpillars. I've not seen them eating the leaves, maybe they do this at night, but they sorta roll up in the leaves with a webbing thing around them.
Then two nights ago, I noticed a large and very scary bug eating one of the caterpillars. Once again, after searching the forum, I've decided it's an assassin bug. There are two of these bugs on my sunflowers. They will stare you down and win. Wow.

Is there anything else I can do to protect the sunflowers without killing these scary, but useful bugs?

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All of them. All my sunflowers were under attack by caterpillars. Very frustrating! And I don't know anything more than that. Those assassin bugs are truly awesome, but mean-looking. I wish I could do something for them, like hold a party or buy a cruise ticket since they work so hard in the garden. Maybe buy them a harley since they're so tough? lol


    Bookmark   July 27, 2014 at 9:26PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Hazel, There are lots of options. Whether they are worth doing at this point with the plants already heavily damaged and in flower is up to you to decide.

For caterpillars, if they aren't doing massive damage, I just leave them alone. Our gardens and landscapes are ecosystems, and everything in the ecosystem eats someone or something and everything in the ecosystem is eaten by someone or something. That is just a fact of life. So, to some extent, some plant damage is inevitable and I can tolerate a lot from caterpillars that will morph into lovely butterflies or moths. I would rather have damaged plants in a pesticide-free garden than to have gorgeous, undamaged plants that have been sprayed with poisons. That's just me, though. I'm really picky about that. There are plenty of folks who use chemicals, and certainly that is their right. I'm not even saying that I never would use a broad-spectrum pesticide, because there's always the chance I'll have a pest problem so severe that I might decide spraying a broad-spectrum pesticide would be the best option. Still, for me to do that, it would be a drastic, last-resort type of action that I'd employ if I'd tried every other option and it had failed.

When the cats are doing a lot of damage and it cannot be ignored, I prefer to handpick them. It is your option how you handle them after that. Sometimes I just transfer them to native sunflower plants growing outside the garden in scattered spots on our acreage. That allows the cats to eventually become butterflies, and I do love having a garden full of butterflies. If they are something pesky like cabbage worms, I offer them to the chickens. If the chickens don't want them, I either drop them into a bowl of soapy water where they drown, or I dump them on the ground and stomp them. Mostly I prefer the non-violent approach, but some cats do so much damage that I kill every one of them that I see.

If hand-picking isn't a viable option for you, you can spray or dust your plants with a caterpillar killer that contains Bt 'kurstaki' as its active ingredient. I rarely use it, but I generally have either Thuricide (a liquid product) or Dipel (a granular product you dust onto the plants) in my garden shed just in case I might need it. The great thing about Bt 'kurstaki' is that it targets only butterflies and moths, but the bad thing is that it targets all butterflies and moths. Because I have a large population of butterflies and moths in my garden most years and even plant specific kinds of plants to attract them and for their larvae to feed upon, I generally avoid the use of Bt. I've only sprayed it on the entire garden once in my life, and that was the year that army worms, climbing cutworms and regular cutworms were at epic levels and were totally destroying the garden in spring. I think that might have been in 2010. It was almost impossible to even find Bt 'kurstaki' products in stores because they sold out as soon as they were put out on the shelves. We looked all over for it for a couple of weeks before we found any Thuricide. However, I might use it on a specific plant or group of plants that is being attacked by a lot of caterpillars. Most plants will outgrow cat damage, but at some point the damage can become severe enough that the plants have no leaves left to conduct photosynthesis and that tends to lead to plant death.

If handpicking or using Bt are not viable options for you, there are numerous synthetic and organic broad-spectrum pesticides that will kill caterpillars, but many of them also will kill many of the beneficial insects in your garden, so use those with great care.

In future years, if you watch the plants carefully, scouting for insects daily, you can catch the pests and remove them while small and before they do significant damage to your plants.

With most plants, you can grow them under floating row covers while they are young and small, keeping them safe from pests for at least a few weeks. Still, after you remove the covers, the insects will flock to them. Remember, they aren't doing this to purposefully drive you nuts---they are just trying to eat so they can survive.

What works best for me is to avoid using all pesticides, both synthetic and organic in natures, for as long as possible. Some years I never use them at all. Then, if I have to use one, I try to use one that is narrow-spectrum, like Bt is, and that affects only the specific pest I'm dealing with. When you use broad-spectrum pesticides they can kill all your beneficial insects, and beneficials are slower to recover than pest insects, so I really try to avoid all broad-spectrum pesticides as much as possible, but especially those that are sprayed onto or dusted onto plants. I don't mind quite as much using a granular product like Slug-go, Slug-go Plus, the spinosad-containing ant baits for fire ants, or EcoBran for grasshoppers. Each of those is formulated as a bait that must be ingested by the target insect so that it won't harm all the other insects that don't eat the bait.

Generally, there are predators (like the assassin bug you saw) that help control many of the pesky critters in our gardens that feed on our plants, and then there's other helpers like birds, snakes, turtles, lizards, frogs, toads, etc. that provide much helpful pest control. You also can buy and release various beneficial insects that help control pests. I've never seen as many birds in my garden as I've had this year, and I have birdbaths and bird feeders out in the gardens for them year-round, so we always have a lot of birds. This year we have a whole, whole lot of birds and it appears they mostly are targeting grasshoppers, which I appreciate since we have them in huge numbers this year. Often, if we have the time to be patient, all the various garden helpers will control most pests for us, but sometimes the pests show up in such large numbers that even the garden helpers cannot take care of all of them. I've seen more wheelbugs and assassin bugs in my garden this year than ever before, and except for the grasshoppers and an early outbreak of harlequin bugs, I haven't had much pest damage. Well, there's always spider mite damage, and so much so that to me it seems more normal to have it than to not have it.

When your garden is a healthy ecosystem, it is not insect-free. It is, in fact, insect-filled, but the good guys eat the bad guys and all is well about 98% of the time.

Bon, You'd better watch out with that Harley idea. If you give a Harley to each of your assassin bugs, they're likely to join a motorcycle club, start going on poker runs and other charity rides, and start taking cross-country trips with their biker friends. While your Biker Assassin Bugs are off running around on their Harleys, who's going to be there protecting your landscape and garden?


    Bookmark   July 28, 2014 at 7:15PM
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Wow! Thanks, Dawn, for all the information. Early on, I noticed holes in my sunflowers and I picked up some sevin dust, and after dusting them read about the damage the dust can do to bees and their colonies. That sort of stuff bothers me deeply.
So...I just left the sunflowers alone-- holes and all...and they continued to grow. The first flower (in the pic) opened up and he was so grand and pretty. Then THAT happened to him. The second flower just opened today, so I'll start looking for caterpillars and relocate them. I love butterflies too! Thing is, I don't SEE the caterpillars during the day...and now I'm scared of the assassin bugs and really don't want to go searching for them on the plants. I was down at the pond yesterday and all these wild sunflowers were untouched by caterpillars--why mine?!
Obviously, I grow stuff to get a harvest or a pretty flower, but almost equally, I enjoy the "circle of life" stuff too. It's all very fascinating to me. I even feel a tiny bit sorry for the bugs that I do kill--but I'm weird that way. Always have been.
Bon, I LOL"d when I read your Harley suggestion! So funny. :D

    Bookmark   July 28, 2014 at 11:18PM
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My daughter screamed to high heaven when she spotted a baby scorpion on my bed sheet last night. She was mortified. (So was I, actually.) We put it in a small bottle and she enjoyed watching it. As soon as she figured out it would starve to death in there she insisted on a family talk. It went outside (way way away from the house).

The traditional part of me wants to enforce the tough acts on her. Instead, I'd rather encourage her to listen to her heart on the matter. She's been good for me. I'm a bit softer around the edges for it.

    Bookmark   July 29, 2014 at 8:33AM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Hazel, The "why" is because cultivated sunflowers within someone's official garden area usually get more nitrogen than those out in the wild, which translates to more carbs available in the leaves which makes them more attractive to pests. This is why you'll often see cautionary statements about being sure to avoid fertilizers with excess nitrogen as their use can attract more pests to garden plants. And, by the way, I'm not saying you gave your sunflowers too much nitrogen because I have no idea if you have fertilized them at all, but just the fact that they are growing in garden soil that likely has been improved compared to native soil could mean they are getting more nitrogen than the native plants. At our place, the pests hit the flowers inside the garden first, and then they move out and hit the ones outside the it is merely a matter of timing. Eventually the native sunflowers will have leaves full of holes too. In fact, yesterday I noticed the native sunflowers by my greenhouse are getting holey now after remaining relatively intact all summer up to this point.

Bon, You know I'm pretty tolerant of all insects but scorpions will hurt a person badly, so I kill them all. We have so many scorpions outside that I haven't bought a pair of sandals or open-toed or open-heeled shoes in at least 10 years. If I go outside in anything less than a sturdy shoe or boot, a scorpion will sting me within an hour or so. We had them in the house for ages after it was built, but I don't think I've found one indoors in several years now so maybe we finally got rid of them all.

At our house, the rule is that if the creature in question is aggressive and can hurt you (scorpion bites are very, very painful and when they bite me, the area swells a lot and, if it is a finger, for example, can be stiff and unusable for several days), then it is not allowed to live. We pursue a "scorched earth" policy with all venomous snakes, all brown recluse and black widow spiders, and all snakes (generally rat snakes and chicken snakes) that kill chicks if we find them on the two acres closest to the house, yard, garden and outbuildings. They are free to roam at will on the rest of the acreage, but we don't want them up in the area that we freely roam.

The last two times a scorpion bit me in the garden, it hurt so much that I was sure a snake had bitten me and kept checking repeatedly for (a) a snake lurking nearby and (b) fang marks.

The other day, Fran and I were at the fire station unloading a lot of cases of Gatorade we had picked up. We were filling the station's 2 refrigerators with cases of bottled water and Gatorade so we'd have pre-chilled drinks for fire calls. Fran went to move a partially-empty case of water inside the kitchen refrigerator and found a dead scorpion lying there in the cardboard box. That's the first time I've ever seen a scorpion inside a refrigerator. I'm guessing the scorpion got into the case of water while it was stored in the fire station before being put into the fridge. We don't usually have much trouble with scorpions at the station, but I'll be watching extra closely for them after finding the one in the fridge.

I haven't seen a single scorpion anywhere on our property (knock on wood) yet this year, which is incredibly odd. Usually I have tons of trouble with them when I am covering up plants on cold nights with row cover in spring. They seem to like to lie on top of the row cover, which means that when you are uncovering your plants, you'd better be wearing thick leather gloves and you'd better be watchful. Some years, if I pick up anything (a wood stake, etc.) off the ground, it is pretty much guaranteed a scorpion will be on the underside and will bite me if it gets a chance. Scorpions love to hide in mulch, which likely explains why I see so many in the garden itself.


    Bookmark   July 29, 2014 at 9:00AM
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Yeah. I learned real quick to wear pants in the garden LOL

    Bookmark   July 29, 2014 at 9:30AM
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I usually assess whether the damage that the pest is doing really matters.
For instance, chewing on sunflowers that have already flowered, probably isn't going to be that important in the scheme of things....same with caterpillars that eat leaves on mature trees in the late summer, early the scheme of things, those leaves would have fallen off within a month anyway. it doing harm ? Is it worth the harm that doing anything about it will cause (dead bees, butterflies, beneficial insects, maybe toads/frogs), etc.

That being said, I do believe in spraying when I have assessed the situation and believe I have no choice if I want to enjoy the plant or the fruits of the plant.

    Bookmark   July 29, 2014 at 10:38AM
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Thank you! Good information about excess nitrogen and pests.
Sorry if I come across as idealistic about pests and not using pesticides...and having empathy for bugs. At this point, I probably am. (although I kill fleas, ticks, flies without mercy!) Next year the plan is to have a much bigger garden and hopefully lots of food to harvest and can. It's possible I'll be less idealistic when it comes to bugs ruining food I want to can, and then use for the coming year.
We've only been in our house for 3 months and my garden is just 10 pumpkins, a strip of sunflowers, a small raised bed that I bought from SAMS. It's divided into 4 sections. I've planted cucumber, yellow squash, zucchini, and radishes. I'm in learning mode now. I can recognize a squash bug and an assassin bug. All progress. I've had a couple of small gardens in the past, but I just planted stuff, watered, and picked whatever survived.

Back to the sunflowers. I did not fertilize them, as I figured they grow wild all around me in the red clay. However, when I dug up the area to plant them, I did notice the dirt was darker and not so clay. Guessing someone else has had a garden there at one time.

    Bookmark   July 29, 2014 at 11:10PM
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I learned a lot, too. I have good soil. Explains much.

    Bookmark   July 30, 2014 at 2:28AM
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Hazel, My sunflowers were a little behind yours, and mine have not seen a lot of insect damage. but it is still time for them to go. You can see across my driveway that none of my sunflowers are still standing upright. Mother nature has told them it is time for them to pack their bags and go, their job is finished. Also the Zinnias on this side of the driveway are getting homesick and damaged by fungus and spider mites, they, to may be throwing in the towel soon.

I count it a blessing to see the things die, for I know they have done their job well. They have supplied, beauty, food for a multitude of bees and insects, and will supply food for the birds this winter, and even compost for next years plants, and all I did was stick a few seeds in the dirt.


    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 11:41AM
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Larry, I love your positivity!
I just don't know enough about anything gardeny yet. For some reason, I thought sunflowers were supposed to have seeds--fully formed seeds before they die. Or do they form after they die? Or maybe they're there but attached to the sunflower face differently than I though they were supposed to be attached. I'll go out and look.

I still have some that are blooming. They are so beautiful and watching the bees enjoy them is fun.

Also, I really enjoy seeing pictures of your garden.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 2:42PM
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Hazel, thanks. I love taking pictures for two reasons, !, If I took notes I would loose them. 2, It is said that a picture is worth a 1000 words, I don't know a thousand words, and if did I would not know how to spell them.

I think your sunflowers have seeds in them, they will be standing on end all wedged in the center fuzzy part where you see the bees dancing. That is one reason the plants hang their heads, the seeds are maturing and getting heavy. I think I need to harvest mine, it is raining again and I am afraid they may rot if I don't put them in the shed.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 3:11PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Hazel, Each sunflower disc (head) has numerous tiny tubular flowers within it. As the bees and other pollinators visit each tiny tubular flower, they pollinate it and a single seed begins tor form from each tiny tubular flower. The larger flower rays (petals) that surround the disc are there to attract pollinators to the disc and its tiny tubular flowers. Normally, by the time the rays are beginning to age and wither, all the little tubular flowers within the disk have been pollinated and have formed and are maturing seeds. Generally the seeds are not necessarily ready to harvest when the rays of the flower dry and fade, but they are in the process of maturing. You just need to wait for them to dry (you can cut the heads off the flowers and let them dry in a sheltered place if you choose---this can keep squirrels from stealing all the seeds if you're planning to save them to feed the birds and it keeps deer from devouring them) for good storage. I usually cut the heads and line them up on a table in our oversized garage (which was designed and built with lots of extra space for all my garden storage and projecs. Sometimes, though, I leave the heads and let them dry on the plants, and then some of the seeds drop to the ground and will sprout the following year.

Sunflowers grow incredibly well in clay soil and also are very drought-tolerant. At our house, they are one of the last flowering plants to dry up and die or go dormant in periods of extreme or exceptional drought. We've been in drought virtually all year and have spent most of the summer in extreme drought, but the native sunflowers that grow in scattered patches on our property all look really good. They really don't demand much care and they seem to thrive on neglect.

The one thing to remember with incorporating sunflowers into a garden of veggies, flowers and herbs is that they can be allelopathic to some other plants and can interfere in those plants' growth and performance.

When you look closely at the disk of a sunflower, you can see that sometimes the tubular flowers/seeds grow in intricate and exquisite patterns. Look closely at the pattern of growth on the disk of the Zebulon sunflowers linked below. It is one of my favorite sunflowers---each one is a work of art.

Here is a link that might be useful: Images of Zebulon Sunflower

    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 3:16PM
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This is my first time on the website. I have small darwf sunflowers and something is eating the leaves. Today i found small green worms, less than .5 cm long underneath them..couldn this be it? and some of the flowers die even before they open!


    Bookmark   September 18, 2014 at 2:04PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

It could be the small green caterpillars. Usually if caterpillars are eating the leaves, you'll find green or black frass (excrement) lying on some of the leaves or on the ground beneath the plant. However, there are many other critters that will eat sunflower foliage, ranging from grasshoppers to deer.

With caterpillars, you can hand-pick them and drop them into a bowl of soapy water to drown. You can do this wearing gloves if the thought of touching caterpillars with your bare hands grosses you out.

You can protect the plants by spraying them with a pesticide labeled for use as a caterpillar control. If I was going to do that, I'd use an organic product containing the active ingredient Bacillus thuringiensis 'kustaki', which is a bacteria that only targets members of the Lepidoptera family. Understand, though, that the Bt 'kurstaki' also can kill the beautiful butterflies and moths that visit your garden, so if you choose to use it, try to spray it only on the green leaves and stems but not on the blooms themselves.

There are many products on the market that contain Bt 'kurstaki' and I'll link an image of the container of one of the brands I see most often in stores. You usually can find these products in nurseries, garden centers, building supply stores, etc. I usually see them on the shelves of all kinds of stores like Wal-Mart, Lowe's, Home Depot, Tractor Supply Company, etc. in spring and summer. It sometimes can be hard to find in fall as it will sell out if there is a large outbreak of fall army worms or tent caterpillars, but even then you usually can order it online from someone like Amazon and get it pretty quickly.

I rarely use this product because I like having a garden full of butterflies and moths, so my preference is to hand-pick the caterpillars instead of spraying the plants, but if hand-picking doesn't appeal to you, this is the option that would do the least harm to beneficial insects.

This is not a quick-kill product. If you were to spray it directly on a caterpillar, the cat isn't going to just drop dead. The way that it kills them is that the caterpillars ingest the Bt while feeding on plants sprayed with it. Shortly thereafter they will stop eating, but they may live for 1-2 days longer before they die.


Here is a link that might be useful: Example of 1 kind of a caterpillar killer product

    Bookmark   September 18, 2014 at 2:47PM
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Thanks very much, i hand picked the little worms!


    Bookmark   September 22, 2014 at 3:10PM
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