Let’s Talk About Lily Beetles with Dianna Gibson

Lily Beetle

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.]

Dianna: Most customers have said the Asiatic lilies seem to be infested first, possibly because they bloom earlier than the Orientals.

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?

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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9 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Lily Beetles with Dianna Gibson

  1. I have Fritillaria, Martagons, Asiatics, Orientals and Solomon’s Seal. I have never seen this creature in my garden, thankfully. I do spend a lot of time close to ground level, pulling weeds and just looking which helps me to know what normal is so when the abnormal shows up, I have a clue.
    I am in Allentown, PA – eastern part of the state. I have not heard of any other nearby gardeners having this problem. I did read about it a few years back and that was my first awareness.

  2. i saw 1 very early in the season but never saw another. i grow solomon’s seal but no lilies. i am on Cape Cod.

  3. My Mum lost all of her lilies over 10 years ago (garden just north of Toronto) so, yes I would say they can be just as bad as people say. They decimated the lilies in her garden and ate up every single one. We didn’t know what they were at first, and that was our mistake. We found that diomataceous earth and neem had no effect on the beetles at all. That being said, when the beetles made it to my garden within the city, I hand picked every one I saw daily, and I still have my lilies. I kept a container of water with some dish soap handy and dropped them in as I squished them. Their defence is to drop straight down when threatened and so I keep one hand underneath to catch them. I also checked the plants for eggs and larvae daily and got rid of them too. The best way to control them is to keep the population down from the start. A cold winter also helps since the adults die off if temperatures are cold enough.

    • Yikes. Yes, I’m amazed at their ability to jump down so quickly! People have suggested putting a white cloth or paper underneath but that’s too much work for just a few beetles. I haven’t seen any in weeks so spotted them early has helped.

  4. I had them on lilies and don’t grow them anymore. I’m pretty tolerant of insects but I find these beetles quite disgusting! I grow fritillaries (the small checked variety) and don’t want to give up on them. I tried knocking the little devils into containers filled with soap and water. You have to be fast but it worked, daily vigilance was the key. I have tried Neem and that seems to work quite well. (I bought a bottle at Canadian Tire, it’s advertised as “plant polish”) – I believe it comes from a tree in India and is used in organic farming practices.

  5. My mom’s lillies in the Hudson Valley have been eaten for a few years now, it wasn’t until a week and a half ago that I caught these beetles in the act. I said Aha! And knocked them to the ground, I doubt that discouraged them very much though…

  6. I had the lily beetles a few years ago and thought I was keeping up with the pick and squish method. But I’m sure they know when you are about and go into hiding. They destroyed my Asiatic and Oriental lilies that in the end I just dug them up as there was no way I could keep up with them.

  7. i have had them for 2 years my lillies ,and they eaten my leaves right o,which doesnt make for a nice flower,,,,

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