Over the last few years, gardening friends have been warning me about a garden scourge the seems to be new(ish) to my area. The lily beetle (Lilioceris lilii) is a pretty red and black beetle that defoliates just about anything in the Lily family, but seems to focus on Asiatics, Fritillaria, Soloman’s Seal, as well as any Lilium.
While the adult is beautifully bright scarlet, also making it very easy to spot, its progeny is a thing of nightmares. It’s a horrible thick blob of a thing that covers itself in its own excrement as a defence against predators and proceeds to eat emerging lily foliage to the ground. Now, I’m not at all squeamish when it comes to creepy crawlies of all types and I have a genuine curiosity about any creature that lives in my garden. As an organic gardener I am definitely not above squishing unwanted pests with my bare hands — it may not be pleasant, but its the safest (and sometimes quickest) method of pest control. But there is just something about a creature that instinctually slathers itself in its own body waste that commands a slow clap and a bow. Well done, lily beetle. Well done. I’ll be coming for you with gloves on, thank-you-very-much.
Since moving to the new garden three seasons ago, friends have regularly inquired, “Do you have them?” to which I have cockily replied, “Nope, not yet.” Not that I wasn’t shaking in my boots. Friends made it sound like this thing is the first sign of the Apocalypse. “They’re coming for you next! Bwahahahahaha!!!!” I added each new lily plant to the garden with trepidation, crossing myself and my fingers and praying that they would stay away. I checked the lilies daily throughout the growing season and I even peeked over at my neighbour’s lilies just-in-case.
And then, just like that… I stepped out into the garden on a sunny afternoon in May of this year and there they were, six of them on a dwarf lily that was just beginning to make some headway out of the ground. They may be easy to spot, but boy are they tough to catch. I nabbed the first few quickly, but the others made a nosedive for the ground and seemed to just vanish. I have since learned that this is typical lily beetle behaviour. Between the costume of poop and the magical disappearing act — they certainly are tricksy little things! I ran inside, practically shaking, and called my friend Barry for support. “They’re here!” I cried, “My god they’ve found me!”
Perhaps it is too early to say, but so far this new “red menace” really hasn’t turned out to be the scourge friends have made them out to be. Since that first sighting I have been making the rounds of my garden daily, checking each of my lilies and Fritillarias for more. I did find them at first, but their numbers tapered off quickly and I haven’t seen them or signs of their presence since.
Eager to learn more, I turned to the person I know will have seen and heard it all, Dianna Gibson, owner of B&D Lilies, a family-owned, North American lily grower that has been growing their own garden-tested lilies for over 3 decades. [Disclosure, B&D Lilies is an advertiser with this site; however, this post is not sponsored.] While the lily beetle has not made it to Washington State where their lily farm is located, Dianna has learned just about every tip and trick in the book through her customers and has lots of great advice to share with us.
An Interview with Dianna Gibson of B&D Lilies
Q: Are lily beetles really as scary as people claim? Are they any worse than any other difficult insect plague?
Dianna: Gardeners need to be vigilant with any type of insect and the Japanese Beetle probably does far more harm to gardens than the plant-specific Red Lily Beetle. Every season in a garden is a different challenge, the pesky white cabbage worm moth laying eggs that turn into squishy green worms, Brussels Sprouts covered in sooty black aphids in late summer, etc.
Q: Fortunately, you don’t have lily beetles in your neck of the woods, Washington State, but it sounds like you’ve heard a lot of stories from customers in affected areas. Beyond hand-picking (my go-to no-impact solution for everything), is there a particularly effective, no-impact trick that you can share with us?
Dianna: I’m a fan of Diatomaceous Earth of for just about anything that’s creepy or crawly, but don’t breath in the powder, and do not in any way use your favorite vacuum cleaner to clean up indoor spillages. [Diatomaceous Earth is made from the crushed shells of fossilized diatoms. Their microscopically sharp edges penetrate the insect's body. The fine powder is very bad for your respiratory system so always wear a mask when handling. - Gayla] From our customer feedback, our favorite story of “hand picking” is from a customer who would go outdoors early in the morning with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cordless vac in the other. The neighbors thought him a bit strange, at least until he explained what he was doing.
Q: Can you recommend lily varieties (if they exist, or other lily alternatives) that are resistant to this pest?
Dianna: Several people have mentioned that the inter-specific variety, ‘Black Beauty’ seems to be somewhat resistant to the beetle. The University of RI is working on that theory, and needed bulbs that had no chance of having a pesticide “load.” When our daughter was about three years old, she “planted” 5 bulbs of ‘Black Beauty’ against the side of the house foundation when we lived in the city. Years later, those bulbs moved with us to the current farm and three bulbs from their babies were sent to the University for increase and testing.
Q: On that note, are there any types that the lily beetle is particularly attracted to? Please don’t say my beloved Martagons (Lilium martagon)! [As an aside, B&D has the best selection of Martagon lilies I have ever seen. I love this one. Drool.]
Gayla: I’m so happy to hear that they won’t be the first target should the lily beetle population increase in my garden. It’s also interesting because that’s where I saw them first in my garden — a dwarf Asiatic. The second plant to get hit was Fritillaria meleagris.
Q: How can gardeners prevent introducing lily beetles into their garden if they don’t already have them?
Dianna: Do not buy potted lily bulbs without a period of isolation/quarantine. If you do, there is a possibility there may be larvae in the potting soil. Be friendly with your neighbors, especially if they grow lilies, and check their garden as well.
If you’re looking to learn more, B&D Lilies has a pretty comprehensive Lily Beetle information page on their website.
As far as further organic controls go, sprinkling with Diatomaceous Earth (mentioned above) and regularly spraying with neem (a systemic pest preventative extracted from the seeds of the Neem tree that works by being absorbed into the plant, making it unpalatable to pests) are the most common methods friends have suggested. Since I have only spotted a few, I will stick to checking daily and handpicking for the time-being.
What about you? Do you have lily beetles in your garden? Do you find them to be as difficult as people to manage as people are saying?