NC State Extension Publications

Identification and Damage

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The red-headed flea beetle (RHFB), Systena frontalis, is a serious pest of broadleaved ornamental plants in nurseries, is native to the Unites States (US), with a distribution from the Rocky Mountains to the East Coast and Southern Canada to Florida and Texas. Growers have identified Hydrangea paniculata, Itea virginica, Weigela florida, Ilex spp., Rosa spp., Rhododendron spp. (azaleas), Osmanthus fragrans, Cornus spp. (shrub and tree form), Sedum spp., and Salvia spp. as the top 10 plant groups most damaged by RHFB. Any broadleaved plant with tender growth when adults are present may be susceptible to injury. Populations seem to build on broadleaved deciduous plants first and, as pressure increases, broadleaved evergreens such as Ilex spp., Osmanthus spp., and Rhododendron spp. can be damaged. Adults eat holes in tender leaves or skeletonize older or thicker leaves making these ornamental plants unsightly and difficult to market for retail sale.

RHFB adults have a shiny black exoskeleton with a reddish to light brown head. They grow up to 0.25 inches (6mm) long and are oval. Antennae are serrate and each segment ranges from light to dark brown. The last set of legs has enlarged femurs adapted for jumping.

Larvae are up to 0.4 inches (10 mm) long and creamy white, have a light brown head, and three pairs of legs near the head. The gut may be visible through the translucent body of larvae. The last segment has a fleshy upward projection with hairs. There are three instars. They feed on roots and have been known to damage cranberry roots in production but don’t seem to have a noticeable effect on ornamental plant roots.

RHFB damage on Itea showing holes eaten in the foliage.

RHFB damage on Itea showing holes eaten in the foliage.

Danny Lauderdale, NCSU Extension

RHFB injury on Weigela showing skeletonization pattern.

RHFB injury on Weigela showing skeletonization pattern.

Danny Lauderdale, NCSU Extension

Red-headed flea beetle adult.

Red-headed flea beetle adult.

Matt Bertone, NCSU


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RHFB overwinters as eggs laid in the fall by the last generation adults. They are oblong, creamy white to pale yellow and slightly less than 1mm long. Eggs are found in container nursery substrate and soil. First generation larvae hatch as early as 250 GDD50 and can be found as late as 800 GDD50. This can occur as early as March or April or as late as mid-May depending on weather and location. Larvae pupate after several weeks of feeding on roots in nursery containers. After pupating, adults begin emerging around 500 GDD50 to 800 GDD50. In some situations, adults are not noticed until over 1000 GDD50. In eastern NC, first generation adult emergence is usually in May or June.

Several generations occur in container nursery production in NC compared to literature references of a single generation per year in soil systems. Second generation adults are usually found in early July around 2000 GDD50 and after this every life stage can be found in nursery substrate (eggs, larvae, pupae) or foliage (adults) through the fall. Adults have been observed as late as the third week of November in eastern NC.

RHFB larva

RHFB larva.

Matt Bertone, NCSU

RHFB larva next to measurement markings

RHFB larva.

Danny Lauderdale, NCSU Extension

RHFB pupa

RHFB pupa.

Matt Bertone, NCSU

RHFB mating

RHFB mating.

Danny Lauderdale, NCSU Extension

Scouting and Monitoring Larvae

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Scouting for first generation larvae can begin as early as 250 GDD50 when larvae hatch from overwintered eggs in plants protected in greenhouses or heated or unheated overwintering structures. In plants overwintered outdoors with various covers or not covered at all, larvae may not be found until 400 GDD50. Scouting for larvae involves checking roots of plants known to have been infested the previous year by adults. Scouting should occur on warm days about 30 minutes to 1 hour after irrigation. Remove the root ball from the container and rotate it quickly to check the side and bottom for larvae. Since larvae are sensitive to light, they will move inside the root ball from the edge very quickly. It is helpful to scout on cloudy days or to use your body to shade roots balls. Plants on the south side of blocks may have earlier emergence than those on the north side due to warmer temperatures. Do not scout if root balls are cold to the touch or if dry as larvae will be in the interior under these conditions. Scouting for first generation larvae is key to determining the progression of life cycles at individual nurseries. Thoroughly scout susceptible plant blocks and check root balls of 25 to 50 plants per species or cultivar. There is little need to scout for larvae after the first generation since all stages are present once second-generation adults emerge in early July around 2000 to 2250 GDD50 (in eastern NC) and through fall with overlapping generations.

examining plant after removing from pot

Remove plant from container to scout for larvae.

Danny Lauderdale, NCSU Extension

Red-headed flea beetle larva next to finger tip

Red-headed flea beetle larva size reference.

Danny Lauderdale, NCSU Extension

Plastic lid with large numbers of red-headed flea beetle larvae

Large numbers of red-headed flea beetle larvae can be found in one plant root system.

Danny Lauderdale, NCSU Extension

Close-Uo view of larvae

Larvae are sensitive to light and quickly move to cover.

Matt Bertone, NCSU

Scouting and Monitoring Adults

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Adult scouting is much easier. Around 500 to 800 GDD50, start watching for adults jumping and flying around and for feeding injury (holes or skeletonization) on young foliage. If scouting when it is sunny and hot, beetles will be found below the upper sets of leaves shading themselves. Since beetles will jump or fly away with any disturbance (including shadows passing), walk on the down sun side of plants and avoid brushing plants when scouting. Yellow sticky cards placed horizontally over the substrate to catch emerging adults or in a traditional vertical placement just above the foliage are not effective. Growers usually see damage on plants before they find beetles trapped on cards. Sweep netting may be a difficult technique to use since beetles are sensitive to disturbance and it may cause unacceptable plant injury. When fall comes and temperatures are cooler in the morning, beetles will often be found sunning themselves on top of leaves.

Adult red-headed flea beetle on underside of sunny leaf

Adults are often found in shade of leaves on bright, sunny days.

Danny Lauderdale, NCSU Extension

potted plants outdoors in sunny area

Scout preferably so your shadow is behind you or opposite of the side you are looking to avoid missing shadow spooked adult beetles.

Danny Lauderdale, NCSU Extension

Adult red-headed flea beetle on top of sunny leaf

Adults are usually found sunning themselves on cool fall mornings.

Danny Lauderdale, NCSU Extension

Decision Making

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Since adult feeding causes unsightly foliage on ornamental plants which results in reduced sales, plant rejections, sales credits, or extended production times to shear, regrow, and protect new foliage, the threshold for this insect and damage is very low for plants going to retail sales markets. Keeping foliar injury below 10% for plants destined for retail sales is ideal. If growing specifically for commercial landscape installation, greater injury may be tolerated. Growers may want to determine if some susceptible species or cultivars are worth growing. Growers might consider not growing species or cultivars with low profitability or low sales that are often heavily damaged. Work with sales and marketing staff to make sure every effort is made to sell smaller container grown shrubs within 1 year of potting. If growers commonly have plants that remain for over a year, consider reducing production numbers. For plants produced for sale at larger sizes (over 3 gallon), a long term, multifaceted management plan is critical to producing quality plants with limited injury for on-time sales.

Intervention and Management - Cultural Management

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Before considering insecticide applications, there are some potential production practices that can benefit growers. Close management of propagation, source plants (liners), production numbers, and existing inventory can help lower insect population, pressure, and injury.

Excluding RHFB from propagation areas via enclosed or insect screened production houses can help prevent early population buildup. Communicating with liner sources about their RHFB management can help determine if early steps are needed when plants arrive. In addition, scout plants for larvae and adults upon arrival or at the appropriate time if held on-site before repotting.

Many weeds and native plants that grow in and around nurseries are RHFB hosts. Managing vegetation and scouting nursery perimeters are important steps to determine if significant insect pressure exists outside of nursery production areas or is primarily in production areas. Most pressure usually exists in nursery production areas. However, scouting perimeters may help growers find small numbers of RHFBs that may move in from outside the nursery.

Consider rotating susceptible plant production locations yearly to help avoid population transfer from old crops to those newly potted. Rotating susceptible plants and conifers will help slow population increase since conifers are not RHFB hosts.

person holds a small plant just taken out of liner

Inspect liners from outside sources for larvae and adults.

Jarrett Warner

large area of potted plants next to each other

Avoid placing newly potted susceptible plants beside infested plants.

Danny Lauderdale, NCSU Extension

Red-headed flea beetles on potted plant

Control weeds to prevent additional red-headed flea beetle feeding areas that may sustain a population.

Danny Lauderdale, NCSU Extension

plants with red-headed flea beetle damage

Monitor plants on perimeter of production areas for red-headed flea beetle adults.

Danny Lauderdale, NCSU Extension

Intervention and Management - Biological and Chemical Management

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Historically growers have focused on targeting adults since they are the life stage that damages plants. If growers see heavy, repeated years of injury then applying appropriate treatments prior to egg hatch and larvae emergence or after larvae emergence to manage larvae and prevent high adult populations is key to reducing plant injury. Application of systemic insecticides or insect growth regulators that target larvae just after egg hatch should be done prior to 250 GDD50 (before egg hatch). Products containing azadiractin (insect growth regulator), cyantraniliprole (diamide), dinotefuran (neonicotinoid), imidacloprid (neonicotinoid), or thiamethoxam (neonicotinoid) work well when applied as drenches prior to first generation egg hatch (prior to 250 GDD50). Chlorantraniliprole (diamide) may provide control when applied in this manner as well, but has not been tested. Granular products containing imidacloprid can be incorporated into substrate or top-dressed after potting at medium to high rates to provide preventive control for plant species and cultivars that historically have high population and damage.

In order to target larvae after egg hatch, drench applications can be made beginning between approximately 250 GDD50 and 500 GDD50 when larvae are found in root balls via scouting. Options are azadirachtin (insect growth regulator), Beauveria bassiana, Isaria fumosorosea, and Metarhizium anisophilae (entomopathogenic fungi) (these previous products require two applications to provide control at a level similar to one application of the following), Steinernema carpocapsae (entomopathogenic nematode), or insecticides containing acephate (organophosphate), cyantraniliprole (diamide), or spinetoram + sulfoxaflor (spinosyn + sulfoximine). Drenches can be used to manage larvae in stock plants, small groups of plants not sold from the previous year, or liners purchased from other growers if a RHFB problem is known or scouting dictates.

Scout for adults between 500 to 1000 GDD50 and after to determine when to start applications. Foliar applications can be made as needed based on insect pressure. Growers with light pressure may only have to make monthly applications. Intermediate pressure requires applications every two weeks. High pressure without larvae management often requires weekly applications. There are many products that have been shown to reduce RHFB adults when applied as foliar applications. Options include products containing acephate (organophosphate), acetamiprid (neonicotinoid), bifenthrin (pyrethrin), carbaryl (carbamate), chlorantraniliprole (diamide), cyantraniliprole (diamide), cyclaniliprole (diamide), cyclaniliprole + flonicamid (diamide + flonicamid), cyfluthrin (pyrethroid), cyfluthrin + imidacloprid (pyrethroid + neonicotinoid), dinotefuran (neonicotinoid), tau-fluvalinate (pyrethroid)(good in rotation to ensure mite suppression), imidacloprid (neonicotinoid), lambda-cyhalothrin (pyrethroid), sulfoxaflor + spinetoram (sulfoximine + spinosyn), thiamethoxam (neonicotinoid), and tolfenpyrad (mitochondrial electron transport inhibitor). Make sure coverage is thorough. Boom or hand spraying will provide better coverage and population reduction than applications made with air blast sprayers.

No matter what management options you choose, remember to read and follow label instructions. Some products have maximum rates per application, number of applications or maximum rates per year, per acre per year maximums, per growing season maximums, or maximums per generation of insect. Always rotate between classes of insecticides to prevent resistance. Consider your employees and the environment by following all label instructions including personal protective equipment requirements, worker protection standards for re-entry, and precautions for environmental safety.

Granular imidacloprid products on surface of soil of potted plant

Granular imidacloprid products can be topdressed after potting.

Danny Lauderdale, NCSU Extension

Row of potted plants with soil incorporating granular imidacloprid products

Granular imidacloprid products can be incorporated into substrate at potting.

Danny Lauderdale, NCSU Extension

Boom sprayer

Although foliar applications with air blast sprayers are common, using boom sprayers or hand guns provides better coverage.

Danny Lauderdale, NCSU Extension

References and Resources

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For assistance with a specific problem, contact your local Cooperative Extension center.


Area Specialized Agent, Ornamental Nursery and Greenhouse, Eastern Region
Professor and Extension Specialist
Entomology & Plant Pathology

Find more information at the following NC State Extension websites:

Publication date: Dec. 21, 2022

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N.C. Cooperative Extension prohibits discrimination and harassment regardless of age, color, disability, family and marital status, gender identity, national origin, political beliefs, race, religion, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation and veteran status.