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Not All Landscape Bugs Harmless in Winter

It's tough when things you count on turn out to be illusions. Here's one more: when summer's finally over, bugs won't bother your landscape anymore.

You think that's true. But that's just because you can't see the ones chawing down on some of your favorite plants. Unless you look very closely.

"Southern red mites are cool-season pests," said Beverly Sparks, an entomologist with the University of Georgia Extension Service. "They're most active in early spring and fall."

Mites are tiny creatures. They don't look as sinister as their spooky cousins, the spiders and scorpions. In fact, they look mostly like they're not even there.

But they are. Southern red mites are a common pest of azaleas, camellias, rhododendrons and hollies. They sometimes invade junipers, too. So they're found in some pretty prominent places in many Georgia landscapes.

"You can see them against a white background," Sparks said. "If you shake them off on a piece of paper, for instance, you can see them. But they're tiny. Adults are about the size of a pinhead."

But these tiny bugs can do some big-time damage to plants. Their feeding shows up on the upper side of leaves as stippling -- tiny white specks -- or as a bronzing of the leaf surface.

You won't find the mites themselves up there on top of the leaf, though. They're eating away on the underside.

"They have mouthparts that enable them to suck out the contents of individual cells in the leaves," Sparks said. "In high numbers, they can do some serious damage. I have seen some dieback in severely infested plants."

Even when the mites don't kill branches, the stippling and bronzing of the foliage can make the plant pretty ugly. And that's not what you planted it there to be.

To get rid of Southern red mites, Sparks said, treat infested plants with an insecticidal soap, horticultural oil or a miticide. Sparks recommends kelthane or diazinon.

Whatever you use, she said, the key to making it work is covering the underside of the leaves.

"That's not easy to do," Sparks said. "Hollies and camellias, especially -- with their cupped, waxy leaves -- can be hard to cover. But good coverage is critical to getting good control."

Any coverage at all, though, is more than Southern red mites often get. "Most people," Sparks said, "just aren't looking for bugs in the winter."

(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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