Have you ever walked outside and discovered damage to your lawn, and you were not sure what is responsible or how to treat the problem? Is it an insect? Is it a mammal? Before you go into the garage to find whatever chemical you may have, let’s pause. To correctly treat the problem, you must identify the culprit first, and then look for appropriate treatment options.
Here in the Piedmont of North Carolina, our most common lawn pests are grubs, moles, voles, fall armyworms, fire ants, spittlebugs, sugarcane beetle, mole crickets, and the occasional pesky raccoon.
Are you seeing raised tunnels in your lawn that sink in when stepped on? Sometimes there are cracks along the top of the tunnels? Moles and voles are responsible for this damage. There is a complex symbiotic relationship going on here. Moles are the excavators. They are subterranean mammals searching for grubs in your soil. They are not eating your plant roots. Voles are smaller, shrew-like opportunists using the mole tunnels to find plant roots to eat. Moles are meat eaters. Voles are vegetarians.
Controlling the moles and voles is most successful if you treat for the grubs. Start at the bottom of the food chain and the mammals will go elsewhere looking for food. Moles and voles are rodents, and they breed like rodents. Eliminating one may give you a feeling of satisfaction, but it does nothing to reduce the colony. There are a number of organic granular repellents with good results. Poison peanuts can be effective, but they pose a real danger to children and pets. The most effective option to reduce this rodent population is to close the barn door before the horse gets out. Eliminate their food source—grubs.
These grubs develop into Japanese beetles—an invasive non-native pest. They emerge from the lawn in June, eat your canna lilies, crepe myrtles and roses, and then lay their eggs below ground in July and die. The eggs hatch quickly, and then the larvae (grubs) are active below ground from August through May, eating grass roots starting in early spring. They can be controlled best at the grub stage. Organic methods include applying milky spore bacteria—a biological agent that feeds on the grubs and keeps them in check. It is slow to spread and takes up to three years to make a difference. A recommended chemical treatment for grubs uses Imidacloprid, found in the product Grub-No-More.
Fall armyworms can be a devastating pest. Some years they are not much of a concern. But when they appear en masse, they can destroy an entire lawn in days. If you notice your lawn dying in a steadily progressing line, you may have fall armyworms. The easiest way to check is with a soapy water flush. Put a good squirt of liquid dish soap in a bucket and fill the bucket with water. Dump that water along the leading edge of the damaged lawn. If you have fall armyworms, they will come wriggling up out of the lawn within minutes.
According to the NC State Turffiles, the fall armyworm is a sporadic but serious pest of turf grasses in North Carolina. The larva is the damaging stage of this pest and it is one inch to one and one-half inches long when fully grown. It can vary in color from green to brown, to almost black. There are four black dots on the dorsal side of each abdominal segment. It has a distinct inverted “Y” on the head.
Fall armyworms emerge from webby nests, often found on the foundation of the home. They do not nest in sod. Homeowners can treat with Talstar (Bifenthrin) if they have correctly identified fall armyworms as the pest. Always follow directions when applying pesticides.
Fire ants can be damaging to lawns, and are a danger to humans as well. Fire ants create large earthen mounds in lawns or garden beds. Often they are found in the lawn by the edge of the curb. If their nest is disturbed, they excrete an alarm pheromone that is a signal to attack. They will swarm the attacker with painful bites that can be very dangerous to people with allergies or young children. A pot full of boiling water poured into the mound is the cheapest and most organic way to kill a fire ant colony, but handle carefully. Talstar (Bifenthrin) is a common chemical pesticide for fire ants.
Spittlebugs are another common lawn pest here. Spittlebugs live inside masses of spittle or foamy froth, giving them their name. They lay orange eggs in hollow stems or lawn debris. The pale green nymphs hatch in about two weeks and begin to feed by sucking juices from Bermuda, centipede and zoysia grass. When you walk through the lawn, they will fly up and land on your legs. The best method of control is to dethatch your lawn, removing the nesting debris. Spittlebugs can be treated with Neem oil, Talstar or Grub-No-More.
Sugar cane beetles’ preferred food is sugar cane, as their name suggests. But they are also fond of Bermuda grass and zoysia. They are one-half inch long and dull black in color with perforations along their abdomen forming stripes. They eat the roots and crowns of grasses, and can cause some tunneling damage. Talstar is the best control.
Mole crickets are becoming more pervasive here. They are one-inch long with shovel-like front legs for digging—hence the name. Mole crickets are gray to tan with large black eyes. They feed on grass roots and shoots, preferring Bermuda, centipede and zoysia grasses. Determine their presence with a soapy water flush in spring. You can control the nymphs with Grub-No-More in June to July. Adults are harder to control. Visible damage includes small mounds of soil scattered on the surface, or the lawn may feel spongy underfoot due to the insects’ tunnels. The grass will turn brown and die in areas where mole crickets have tunneled.
And what if you have just laid fresh sod, but when you wake up in the morning it looks like someone rolled it all back? Could it be pesky neighborhood kids? Actually, the culprit is a raccoon looking for grubs and insects under that easily accessible layer of sod.
As Benjamin Franklin once said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A healthy lawn is less susceptible to injury from pests. Taking good care of your lawn by fertilizing or top-dressing with compost at the right time can give the lawn the nutrition it needs to be more vigorous and less susceptible to damage.
Shannon Hathaway is the installation manager at Super-Sod. You can reach her at email@example.com.