Pesky little buggers – Azalea lace bugs

When we first moved to the Pacific NW, I was thrilled and astounded at the variety of Rhododendrons and Azaleas available to Oregon gardeners. Before long, this infatuation wore off, I got a little jaded, and when we bought a house, I soon started taking them out of the garden. In typical 1942 fashion, they were tidily lined up along the foundation, and I had different ideas. Therefore, when the Azalea lace bug hit our shores in 2008, I didn’t stand to loose much. Sadly, many others did. If I had a dollar for every person whose brought-along twigs I have ID’d as lace bug-infested, I’d be in a happy place. The rampages of these pesky little critters have reached epidemic proportions! Since Azaleas are such a staple plant in many Oregon gardens, I feel terrible when I have to tell people that there really isn’t a silver bullet around to beat these things. It’s either a persistent and  ongoing repetition of timely neem oil treatments, or – since there are several life cycles in a season – continuous dousings with the nasty stuff that will kill everything – including all the beneficial insects. I usually tell people that the least frustration-intensive thing to do, is  to take their Azaleas out, and replace them with something that is not susceptible to lace bugs. At least that would be the low-maintenance gardener’s preferred way out. There truly are better ways to enjoy your garden than to constantly be working against the odds. There are some good info and photos here.

They are actually rather beautiful little creatures - like a stained glass mosaic.

They are actually rather beautiful little creatures – like a stained glass mosaic. Photo courtesy of

The other day, I was out in the yard, and saw the one and only Azalea that still remains in my garden. It’s a deciduous one, and it was an impulse buy because of its bright orange color. I had kinda forgotten it was there, and seeing it made me wonder how affected deciduous azaleas in general, would be. The eggs of the lace bugs survive the winter embedded in the midrib of the leaves, which made me think the deciduous varieties might stand a better chance at surviving year to year – since they loose their leaves. And removing any fallen leaves in autumn probably helps too. The WSU Extension backs me up on this notion, but who knows how the plant will actually look as the summer progresses. It would be no fun to look at those pale, stippled leaves, even if I knew that they will eventually fall off. I guess time will tell.

It's almost beyond comprehension that something that beautiful can cause such devastation. Lace bugs have sucking mouth parts, and suck the leaves dry of chlorophyll. The contrast between the new green growth and the affected foliage is striking, but fear not - soon enough, the new leaves will look just as anemic as the old ones.

It’s almost beyond comprehension that something that beautiful can cause such utter devastation. Lace bugs have sucking mouth parts, and suck the leaves dry of chlorophyll. The contrast between the new green growth and the affected foliage is striking, but fear not – soon enough, the new leaves will look just as anemic as the old ones.

I really wonder how places like the Portland Japanese Garden, where so much of the structure of the gardens consist of Azaleas and Rhododendrons deals with them...

I really wonder how places like the Portland Japanese Garden, where so much of the structure of the gardens consist of Azaleas and Rhododendrons, deals with them… Supposedly, Azaleas in shade do better at fending off the little creatures, than those in sun. Even so, here I suspect the gardeners bring out the big guns. I imagine it must require a sizable increase in labor for them to keep everything as healthy looking as it actually does.

I will monitor my orange azalea another year, and see what it does. Heaven knows I didn’t treat it very well in the first few years I had it. It has been moved at least a couple of times, and spent an entire winter dug up, sitting above ground. When I finally left it in place, and it leafed out, its leaves had this really interesting variegation. It has had this for two years in a row now, so I’m hoping it’s some kind of affliction causing it. You know, like the virus that caused the tulips back in the 15oo’s to break out into such outrageous (and lucrative) colors. Sure, a virus probably weakens the plant, but who cares when the effect is so cool?


This is its fresh, new growth…

... and this is farther along in summer.

… and this is farther along in summer. Pretty cool, huh?

I’m really intrigued by this wonky coloration of its leaves. More so because of this than because of its flowers, I hope it can withstand the assault of the lace bugs. Maybe I’ll give it a precautionary coating of neem oil once its leaves open – just because… If anyone out there has any ideas as to the cause of the variegation (other than neglect, which I suspect it is), I’d love to hear it!



About annamadeit

I was born and raised in Sweden, By now, I have lived almost as long in the United States. The path I’ve taken has been long and varied, and has given me a philosophical approach to life. I may joke that I’m a sybarite, but the truth is, I find joy and luxury in life’s simple things as well. My outlook on life has roots in a culture rich in history and tradition, and I care a great deal about environmental stewardship. Aesthetically, while drawn to the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia, I also have a deep appreciation for the raw, the weathered, and the worn - materials that tell a story. To me, contrast, counterpoint, and diversity are what makes life interesting and engaging. Color has always informed everything I do. I’m a functional tetrachromat, and a hopeless plantoholic. I was originally trained as an architect working mostly on interiors, but soon ventured outside - into garden design. It’s that contrast thing again… An interior adrift from its exterior, is like a yin without a yang. My firm conviction that everything is connected gets me in trouble time and time again. The world is a big place, and full of marvelous distractions, and offers plentiful opportunities for inquiry and exploration. I started writing to quell my constant queries, explore my discoveries, and nurture my curiosity. The Creative Flux was started in 2010, and became a catch-all for all kinds of intersecting interests. The start of Flutter & Hum at the end of 2013 marks my descent into plant nerd revelry. I occasionally contribute to other blogs, but those two are my main ones. For sure, topics are all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blogs!
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18 Responses to Pesky little buggers – Azalea lace bugs

  1. Ugh, those bugs are evil. Our inherited Rhododendrons ended up with it (and are gone, as were the inherited azaleas long long ago). I walk around the neighborhood and am astounded at the number of plants infected. Since I’ve dared to plant two Rhody’s (Rhododendron ‘Ebony Pearl’ and Rhododendron sinogrande) I pray they’re safe. What to do, when/if they get it? Dunno. I love them but really don’t want to become a slave to chemicals.

    • annamadeit says:

      Oh, I hope there are enough Azaleas out there, that they don’t go on your Rhodys… That Ebony Pearl is so cool! We had similar ones to the sinogrande at the nursery (don’t remember exactly what kind, but it had huge leaves and indumentum) and it got it bad. I was so sad when I had to throw them out. I hope yours sails through whatever fate throws at it – it is a beautiful plant.

  2. mattb325 says:

    Lace bugs are even here in Australia, and do the same damage. The only real answer if you want to have azaleas and not use chemicals is to plant a lot of trees (or plant azaleas only under trees)…I’ve seen gardens where lace bug only affects the azaleas in full sun; the ones in shade no more than 3′ away are fine.
    That variegation virus is a nice effect…I heard they don’t do much more than slightly weaken the plant. Take a layer cutting and see if it holds true for a couple of generations – you never know, that’s how the ever popular President Roosevelt Rhodo might have started!

    • annamadeit says:

      I’ve heard too that plants in shade do better. Well, I should stand a chance there – it is in a pretty shady spot now (as are so many of my plants – whether they like it or not! ) I hope you’re right about the virus. I like your idea of trying to layer it to see if it holds true. I had a variegated iris that turned all white once. I was hoping the clump would expand, but unfortunately it died last winter (it was a really cold one.)

  3. Alison says:

    Good info here, thanks for sharing it. I had never heard of these bugs, but then I only have one Rhodie. It’s not doing that well, but I don’t think it’s because of bugs. The variegation on yours is cool!

    • annamadeit says:

      Thanks Alison! There is a native Rhododendron Lace bug as well, but it doesn’t do as much damage as this one. The Azalea LB goes on Rhododendrons too to devastating effect. You might want to check your plant, but hopefully you won’t find any signs of these bugs. They are beautiful but awful!

  4. Pauline says:

    What a shame that you are having such problems from such a pretty looking insect.Hopefully we don’t have it over here in the UK yet, but we will be prepared!

    • annamadeit says:

      We’ve always had native Lace bugs, but the invasion of this one, I believe came from somewhere in Asia. I do hope it never spreads to Europe. In my native Sweden, they are battling murder slugs – which I think came with a fruit shipment from Portugal. They eat EVERYTHING!!! The only thing that eats them is a particular kind of duck. I do hope you never have to deal with either of them on your lovely island!

  5. Pam/Digging says:

    What a beautiful bug! But what devastation to azaleas. I had no idea, since we left azaleas behind when we left the Carolinas for Texas 20 years ago. I’m sorry to hear it though. It must be awful to see those beautiful shrubs ruined by an out-of-control pest. I hope your orange azalea can shrug them off.

    • annamadeit says:

      Thanks! I think its only possible saving grace is that it is in quite a bit of shade, and that its deciduous. Now if I can only remember to dispose of the fallen leaves, I think it stands a decent chance. But yes – it is so sad to see them all turn white…

  6. Kris P says:

    I agree with Pam that it’s a good-looking bug as bugs go but, wow, what damage it inflicts! I had azaleas in my old garden but haven’t felt compelled to add any here. Despite their attractive flowers, they were prone to insect problems, although I recall my problem was thrips and scale, not lace bugs. Your variegated azalea is beautiful – I hope the variegation stays stable and that you avoid the dreaded lace bugs.

    • annamadeit says:

      Thanks Kris – I hope so too. I think you were smart not to add them into your new garden. Life is too short to spend on constant eradication attempts. So much better to plant things that thrive without constant coddling. And I still covet your many Proteas – they are so beautiful!

  7. rickii says:

    R is a big fan, so we are awash in Rhodys. Some are chugging along like champs while others are sickly. I had a long conversation with Mike at Joy Creek last year (they have a number of Rhodys, mostly inherited). He had no real solution for those of us who resist the use of chemicals. Nematodes and neem oil are the first line of defense. I picked all of the diseased leaves off of one struggling specimen and it seemed to rebound. I don’t relish the idea of doing that to all of them. I am now working on R to resist adding any more to his collection (hah! Fat chance!)

  8. annamadeit says:

    So sad for R… I heard from Paul Bonine that Rhodys with lots of indumentum are less susceptible to lace bugs. We had a couple of nice, potted ones that got it bad, but they were in pots and had been there for a while. I think once in the ground, plants have an easier time defending themselves – or a better immune system, if you wish. Perhaps R. could get swayed to try those?

  9. David Redei says:

    Dear Author, I am an entomologist and a lecturer at Nankai University, Tianjin. I am preparing a ppt presentation on lace bugs for non-profit educational purpose. May I use your second photo on this site (“It’s almost beyond comprehension…”) in my ppt as illustration of the damage of the azalea lace bug? How to credit you properly? Thank you very much, sincerely yours, David Redei

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