Leaf-footed bugs are related to stinkbugs. Both cause similar damage on many fruit and vegetable crops, produce a foul odor when handled and are difficult to control.
Adult leaf-footed bugs are about 3/4 to 1 inch long. Common adult species found in Florida are grayish brown to dark brown with a whitish stripe across the back. A distinctive characteristic is their flattened, leaf-shaped hind legs from which they get their name. The nymphs (immature) are spindly, soft-bodied and bright orange-red with thin black legs. Young nymphs stay tightly clustered together after hatching and lack the leaf-shaped structure on their hind legs.
They overwinter as adults in fence rows, in roadside ditches, under tree bark, siding on buildings and other similar places. They become active in spring when mated females deposit egg clusters on leaves, stems and pods. After hatching, nymphs become adults in about five weeks. Four or five generations occur per year.
Adult leaf-footed bugs migrate from weedy areas into tomato plants, particularly as the fruit begins ripening. They are pests of many crops including beans, cowpeas, eggplants, okra, citrus, peach, blueberry and pecan.
Nymphs and adults puncture tomato fruit with their beaks, injecting a toxin. This causes tiny spots with yellowish halos. Heavy feeding results in many spots and discolored, distorted fruit. Tissue below the skin will be somewhat corky or spongy and whitish.
Chemical control is difficult to achieve in home gardens but is best attempted when leaf-footed bugs are nymphs. Nymphs don’t have developed wings and can’t fly out of treated areas. They don’t have well developed exoskeletons (outer shell), resulting in greater vulnerability to insecticides. Adults are difficult to control. They fly out of treated areas when plants are disturbed. Adults have well developed exoskeletons, better protecting them from insecticides. They feed, reproduce and survive on nearby plants, including native and ornamental trees, shrubs, vines, weeds and many cultivated crops.
Control involves frequently scouting the plants for newly hatched nymphs and treating with an insecticide while they are still in a cluster. Look for insecticides that contain spinosad, carbaryl or pyrethroids and are labeled for use on the vegetable crops you intend to treat. It’s best to use a formulation that’s designed to be mixed with water and then sprayed on the plant for thorough coverage. Always follow the product’s label instructions and precautions.
Other approaches to managing this pest include early planting to avoid the high numbers of leaf-footed bugs that are common in late summer and fall, hand removal and disposal of small numbers of adults and use “trap crops” such as sunflowers.