What Are Leaf-Footed Bugs and Are They Harmful?
Have you noticed clusters of red or brown bugs hanging out on the fruits of your fruit tree? They may be leaf-footed bugs (Leptoglossus spp.). They're not the worst pest to have, but they're unsightly (at the very least) and can damage your fruit. Learn all about what they are, how to identify them, and how to get rid of them.
Scientific name: Leptoglossus spp. (Coreidae family)
Common name: Leaf-footed bug
Size: 1/2 to 3/4 in (15-20 mm)
Appearance: Distinguishing features include leaf-like protrusion on each hind leg, long antennae, white markings across the back (particularly in adulthood).
Region: Mostly in southern and southwestern United States, including North Carolina, Florida, Texas, and California.
What do they eat? Plants and fruit (some species specialize in certain fruits, like tomatoes or pomegranates).
How to Identify Leaf-Footed Bugs
The eggs are usually laid along stems or the ridges on leaves. They appear as short chains of small, brown, cylinders.
When young, they have varied coloration that ranges from light-yellow to orange to bright red. Their body appears round rather than flat. You may also notice a couple of black spots down the middle of the back towards the bottom.
The instars look similar to nymphs—with similar markings—but are a bit larger. They may not have the bright coloration of nymphs and often are light-brown or tan in color.
Adults have a flat, leaf-like body shape and can be brown, gray, or black, depending on the species. Most will have a white band across the width of the back. You'll also see leaf-like growths on the back legs.
Leaf-Footed Bug vs. Stink Bug vs. Kissing Bug
Kissing Bug (Assassin Bug)
1/2–3/4 in (15–20 mm)
Up to 3/4-in long (20 mm)
1/2–1 in (12–24 mm)
Light orange to bright red when young. Brownish-gray or black when adult.
Yellow or red when young. Brown, gray, or green when adult.
Reddish-orange when young. Brown, gray, or black when adult.
Long and leaf-like. Tapers at the tail-end.
Resembles a shield. Similar to the leaf-footed bug but stockier (not as long).
Long and oval.
Whitish band across the back and leaf-like protrusions from hind legs.
Banded pattern along the bottom edges of the body and resembles a shield.
Long nose/snout with a long fang folded underneath, reddish-orange markings, and abdomens that flare up on the sides.
Weeds and fruit
Plants and other insects
Yes—carry the parasite that causes Chagas disease
Are Leaf-Footed Bugs Harmful?
No, they are not harmful to humans. They also do minimal damage in your garden unless the population gets out of control. Their needle-like bites into fruits and leaves are usually hard to see and can be tolerated in most cases.
Can They Bite?
Although they have mouthparts designed to pierce, leaf-footed bugs do not bite humans or other animals, and they only use them to suck juices from leaves, stems, and fruit.
Are They Poisonous?
Leaf-footed bugs aren't poisonous, and there is no evidence that they carry parasites or human diseases, although it isn't inconceivable.
However, they can easily be mistaken for assassin bugs that do carry Trypanosoma cruzi, the parasite that causes Chagas disease. Assassin bugs infect humans with the disease by defecating after biting the face near the eyes or mouth (hence the name "kissing bug").
Can They Fly?
They can fly, but you won't find them zipping around like a fly would. Most of the time, you'll find them resting or crawling on your plants.
How to Control Leaf-Footed Bugs
Although they are certainly gross and can do lots of damage if the population isn't controlled, getting rid of them isn't always necessary. Keep in mind that using pesticides may get rid of bees and other beneficial insects as well as the harmful ones. In addition, they are generally attracted to ripe fruit (when they're almost ready for harvest). Using pesticides in this period can pose more of a threat to consumers than the bugs and is usually warned against on bug spray labels.
If they aren't doing too much harm, it's best to leave them be. But if there are too many around, or you just don't want them near your fruit, here are some easy ways to get rid of them.
1. Catch them by hand.
Although they can fly, they are slow-moving and are most often found crawling or standing still. You can catch them by hand or trap them in plastic containers. Once caught, you can kill them by squashing or drowning them. I suggest wearing gloves and a mask because they will emit a foul odor (think burning rubber) when squashed—similar to stink bugs. Many people also liken the smell to coriander and cilantro.
2. Plant companion crops.
I haven't tried this myself, but some gardeners have found that sunflowers can attract leaf-footed bugs. Planting some sunflowers nearby can draw the bugs away from your fruit, allowing you to either catch them or spray them with insecticide.
3. Welcome natural predators.
Creatures like birds and spiders—and even other bugs—will prey on leaf-footed bugs. I've found quite a few that have been caught in spider webs throughout my pomegranate tree. For this reason, I've stopped removing the webs in my garden and have refrained from using bug sprays. The spiders are actually helping rather than hurting!
4. Find and remove the eggs.
No matter how many bugs you catch, they'll keep coming back if you don't get rid of the eggs. Look for short, thin rows of cylindrical, brown eggs on branches, stems, and leaves. Simply scrape them off and toss them in some soapy water or bleach solution.
5. Remove weeds and natural bug shelters.
Leaf-footed bugs feed on weeds when no fruit are around (i.e. during the winter). They also hide under in sheds, stockpiles of wood, and under loose bark—basically, anywhere that can provide cover from the elements over the winter. They are hardy bugs, and adults can survive winter frosts if they can find shelter.
Clean up your yard before the winter. Check piles of wood and other debris, as well as under loose bark on trees and in your shed and other storage areas. Remove them by hand or use a broad-spectrum insecticide to prevent them from hiding. Remove weeds or prevent them from growing at the start of spring.
6. Use plant covers.
When timed correctly, covering your fruit plants with light mesh material can prevent bugs from nesting on them. However, this will also prevent pollinators and other beneficial insects from accessing the plants, which allows aphid populations to build up. Again, you'll have to weigh the costs and benefits of removing leaf-footed bugs.
7. Spray insecticides—only as a last resort.
As mentioned, insecticides are usually not necessary and can do more harm than good. If the population of leaf-footed bugs is out of control, or if you really just don't want them in your garden, use insecticides on the nymphs (the orange- or red-bodied bugs). According to the University of California Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources, broad-spectrum, pyrethroid-based insecticides like permethrin are most effective.