Potato Bug 101: Potato bug bites! And everything else that you’d like to know!

Unlike other insects that bite whenever they want wherever they want, potato bugs bite only when they are provoked. They are not venomous, so being bitten by one of them won’t kill you but it wouldn’t tickle either! Potato bugs are known for their alien-looking and disproportionately large jaws that they use to dig into the earth and obviously bite. In this article, we will tell you how to identify a potato bug, where to find them, how to get rid of them and what a potato bug is, if you already don’t know that one! So, let’s get started…

Potato bug - Jerusalem cricket
A Jerusalem Cricket
Photo Credit

What are Potato Bugs?

Often called the skull crickets, potato bugs are not exactly some cuties of the animal kingdom. In fact, they are not cute at all which you can quickly tell by just looking at one. Also known as the Jerusalem crickets, potato bugs are neither true bugs nor are they crickets and they are not even native to Jerusalem. So, what exactly are they? Let’s see if you can figure out after we tell you the rest of the names by which people recognize them. Devil spawns, earth babies, skull cricket, child’s face and whatnot. Surely, no one is too sure as to what they are, but we will do our best to help you understand!

The term “potato bug” refers to two species of insects, the Jerusalem cricket and the Colorado potato beetle, both of which are named for their love of feeding on potatoes and other tubers. They can be differentiated from each other based on looks, behavior, and distribution, among many other things.

So, let’s dive right in!

A Potato Bug’s Menacing Jaws
A Potato Bug’s Menacing Jaws
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What do Potato Bugs look like?

As their creepy nicknames suggest, these creatures look scary, in fact, they look scarier than they actually are. The Colorado potato beetle is known for its alienated appearance and large size, often reaching lengths of up to 5 cm (2 inches). They have black stripes running horizontally across their amber-yellow to brown bodies.

They don’t have wings, so they cannot fly, but they have powerful legs, which together with their giant jaws help them dig into the soil. Their heads are reddish and sort of look like human skulls giving them their creepy names such as the earth babies, red skulls and skull-crickets.

Black stripes
Potato Bug has black stripes on its abdomen
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Where do Potato Bugs live?

Despite what their name suggests, Jerusalem crickets are not just confined to Jerusalem. In fact, these insects are found all over Mexico, Europe, parts of Asia and most of the United States including Florida where they spend their time in a wide range of habitats such as manure heaps, agricultural fields, under rocks, tree logs, as well as fallen or decaying debris.

The ideal places for these insects to live are flower beds or gardens, and during extremely hot seasons, they might even move into homes to hide in the crevices or damp shady places.

Jerusalem Crickets are shy creatures and usually avoid coming in contact with humans. You will have a hard time finding these fellas as they are nocturnal creatures that only come out during the night. In the areas where they are found, Jerusalem Crickets can often be seen while working in the garden to clear out old leaves and debris.

lives in plant debris
Potato Bugs usually live in plant debris
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What do Colorado potato beetles eat?

Potato bugs do not just voraciously eat potatoes or potato plants all day long. In fact, they will eat anything from fruits to roots and even small insects. Adult Colorado Potato Beetle is the most destructive type of potato beetle for the potato fields; they can go through a whole potato field in a matter of just a few days. Female Colorado potato beetle often lays her eggs on the underside of potato leaves on which potato bug larvae then feed on as they grow up.

An infestation of the Colorado potato beetle is often detected too late because of the underground lifestyle and the secretive and nocturnal nature of these insects. Because of their specialized diet, Colorado potato beetles can be very harmful to growing potato crops and other tubers. However, despite the damage that they cause, some farmers or gardeners see Jerusalem Crickets as beneficial for the soil. When these insects dig through the soil to move around or find something to eat, they aerate the soil, which is good for healthy plant growth.

Also, they are very good at removing dead leaves and decaying organic matter from the soil and, in the process returning nutrients back to the soil. It is usually the lack of decaying plant material that causes the Colorado potato beetle to munch on the fresh crops in the very first place.

Hiding under the leaves
A potato bug hiding among fallen leaves
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Can potato bugs harm you?

Let’s be honest; potato bugs look mean! But just because they look mean doesn’t mean you should be afraid of them. Jerusalem Crickets are shy creatures, and they tend to live underground, they come out only at night and will do anything to stay away from humans. Moreover, they are pretty big insects, and most humans are quick to get rid of them.

But in case of an infestation or extremely hot weather, Jerusalem Crickets might enter your home and bite you. As they are not poisonous, their bite is not dangerous, but it is still quite nasty as potato bugs possess very large and extremely powerful jaws, which they also use to dig into the soil and munch on plant matter.

In most cases, Jerusalem Crickets bite you when you are expecting it the least. For example, when working around in the garden. So, wear protective gear such as gloves, especially when you are working in a potato field and if you are lucky enough to spot a potato bug before it has got a chance to bite you, you should definitely look for the signs of agitation as these bugs only bite when triggered and usually keep their distance.

In most cases, when a potato bug is just about to bite you, it lifts its body on the back legs to appear large and intimidating. Also, a potato bug might make a hissing sound before chewing down on your skin, so keep your eyes and ears, both open.

Bug bite
A bug’s bite
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How to treat a Potato Bug bite?

While, extremely painful, a single bite is not something you should run to a hospital for, the pain only lasts for about a few minutes, but it is still essential to make sure that the wound from a bite doesn’t get infected. To clean your wound of any germs or other infectious agents, thoroughly wash the affected area of your skin with soap or warm water.

If you feel a sensation of itching along with pain, you can also try applying apple cider vinegar with a clean piece of cloth to the irritated area. The components of apple cider vinegar are antimicrobial and will keep you from developing an infection. Make sure that you dilute the apple cider vinegar before use as it is pretty acidic and could harm the wound if used in pure form.

To do this, mix equal amounts of apple cider vinegar and warm water and then use it to clean your wound by dipping a piece of cotton or a clean piece of cloth in it.

Are potato bugs aggressive?

Most of the time, these scary-looking insects will try to get away from you as soon as you spot them. They are very shy creatures who tend to spend most of their time underground hiding from prying eyesight. Without a doubt, they are the typical example of being more afraid of us than we are of them.

But when threatened, Jerusalem Crickets can become aggressive. You can easily identify an aggressive potato bug by looking at one. When they are in a bad mood, they will kick out their legs much like a donkey. Also, sometimes they roll onto their back and make hissing sounds when aggressive.

Antenna
Potato Bug’s antennas
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What should I do if potato bugs enter my home?

More often than not, potato bugs will remain outside your home near a food source. Besides, because of their lifecycle, you will never see any potato bug swarms. Still, you might come across a few dozens of them when plants have started to decay.

But during very hot or dry weather, the bugs might enter your home as they are very fond of cool, moist and shady places. But they do not damage houses or furniture, and if you see one, just put on some thick gloves and move the insect somewhere else.

How do you get rid of Potato Bugs?

Other than picking them up and dropping them in a bucket full of soap water to drown Jerusalem Crickets to their death, there are a number of other steps that you can take to get rid of this garden nightmare. Potato bugs are widespread agricultural pests; they are especially harmful to the different varieties of nightshade, including tomatoes, eggplants and obviously potatoes, as well as other members of the Solanaceae family.

Adult beetles lay nearly 40 to 50 eggs in a single day from which larvae emerge which voraciously eat on the leaves of young plants, destroying them before they even become mature. A frustrating issue of dealing with a potato bug infestation is the fact that in addition to creating significant damage to the plants in a short amount of time, Jerusalem Crickets often develop resistance to the commercially available pesticide.

SO, whether you should use synthetic insecticides, pesticides or use any natural compound to get rid of them will depend on a number of factors. To figure out which one is best for you, let’s explore your options…

What is the best way to get rid of potato bugs?

If you want to get rid of stubborn Jerusalem Crickets, you will have to be quite active. You can’t just spray a pesticide once and get rid of them as Jerusalem Crickets are known for quickly developing resistance against commercially used insecticides and pesticides. So, here are some organic compounds that you can use to get rid of them:

Diatomaceous Earth to kill Potato Bugs

It is really hard to be not impressed by this fantastic compound, Diatomaceous Earth (DE) can be used in a variety of situations. It causes the insects to dry out by absorbing oils and fats from their cuticle, which ultimately kills them. So, in case of a potato bug infestation, just sprinkle some DE on the leaves and let it work its magic.

Neem Oil to Kill Potato Bugs

Neem oil is another amazing organic pesticide. While it will not kill the potato bugs on its own, it surely stops them from reproducing. Neem oil works by creating a coating around Jerusalem Crickets and prevents them from hatching. Also, a thin layer of oil over the leaves also makes the leaves less palatable to the bugs and thus reduces their growth. But only use Neem Oil as a last resort as it may also hinder the development and growth of beneficial insects in your garden.

Neem plant
Neem Plant
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Microbial oil to kill Potato Bugs

Use of Bacillus thuringiensis is one of the best methods for insect control. Bacillus thuringiensis is also referred to as BT. The compound does not harm soil, plants, humans and even beneficial insects such as bees and ladybugs, which play a role in the pollination. You can use BT to control potato bug infestation when the eggs hatch.

Introduce beneficial insects to get rid of potato bugs

Introducing insects such as ladybugs, lacewings and nematodes in your garden could also help you to get rid of Jerusalem Crickets. These insects feed on the eggs and early stages of potato bugs when the eggs hatch and could significantly reduce their numbers in your garden.

Other ways to get rid of potato bugs

One thing to keep in mind is the fact that healthy plants are much more likely to protect themselves against pests, so make sure that your plants have access to the fertile soil. You can also try crop rotation, removing organic debris from the ground and planting insect repellant plants in your garden to decrease the chances of getting a potato bug infestation. Also, try using plastic trenches around the garden which has also been shown to reduce the number of pests in gardens.

Conclusion

While, in small numbers, the potato bug if left alone can be beneficial for the garden and soil. As already mentioned, these insects are ground-dwelling creatures that dig burrows in soil using their big jaws. During the process of digging the soil, the create ting air spaces which could help aerate the soil which allows healthy plant growth.

Also, they pose no harm to humans as they are shy creatures that only attack when treated. Nonetheless, their increased number in your garden could be a sign of concern as in addition to causing crop damage; they can enter your homes during the hot and dry climate and might accidentally bite you or your pets.

Potato Bug FAQs

Do Jerusalem Crickets cry?

Despite being called earth babies, potato bugs do not cry like babies. Although, they might emit a foul smell, if handled rudely.

What happens if my dog eats a potato bug?

These insects are not toxic, but eating too many of them might make your dog very sick. Symptoms include lack of appetite, stomach pain and blood stools. So, make sure you keep an eye out so your dog does not overdose on these crunchy insects, as recovery can be a slow process.

Why are potato bugs called Jerusalem Crickets?

While there is no clear answer to this question, many debate that they get the “Jerusalem” in their name because their bodies resemble the Jerusalem Cross. Others suggest that they got their name because the word ‘Jerusalem’ was used to show displeasure in the 19th century. So, people who came across this scary-looking insect got startled, and the name stuck.

What are Colorado Potato Beetles?

Colorado Potato Beetles are just another type of potato bug but are in fact much more harmful for potato crops than the Jerusalem Crickets.

Potato bug - Colorado potato beetle
A Potato Bug has very strong muscular limbs that help it dig
Photo Credit

What animals hunt Potato Bugs?

Birds, coyotes, skunks and bats are the most common predators of potato bugs. Potato bugs release smelly secretions from their body in order to confuse predators.

How long do Potato Bugs live?

An adult potato bug can live for as long as two or maybe even three years.

Potato Bug Quick Facts

  • While mating, potato bugs make a drumming sound by beating its belly against the ground.
  • Adult potato bugs become active in the summer, roughly at the same time when potato plants emerge from the ground.
  • Despite being called Jerusalem Crickets, potato bugs are not true crickets but a type of flightless insects.
  • After mating, female potato bugs eat their male partners.

How Potato Bugs reproduce?

Further Reading

After learning how to deal with potato bug, read our other articles about plant bugs:

Fungus Gnats vs. Fruit Flies: How to Get Rid of Them on Houseplants?

How to Kill Whiteflies on Houseplants? Plus Organic & Inorganic Methods

How to Effectively Control Houseplant Pests?

Morgan Daniels

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