Ask not for whom the lily beetle tolls

Keeping calm and carrying on under the shadow of the lily beetle

Finally, they’re here. For at least 5 years, now, I have been hearing tales of destruction and dire prophecies from friends and garden visitors who live to the east and northeast of Buffalo. “Do you have the lily beetle yet? They’re everywhere in (Rochester/New England/Ithaca, etc.). I don’t grow lilies any more. They ate them all.”

Cringes of horror all around. I assured the visitors I had not seen this dire creature, but they assured me it would make its way west. And it has; indeed, I’ve read about infestations in Wisconsin and Seattle, so maybe it bypassed Buffalo at first as it swept across the country. Or maybe it took a while to find its way into the urban core.

I have not experienced any widespread devastation (yet), but everything I’ve read and heard is true. The red beetles nibble away at leaves and lay eggs, which grow into repellent black masses of goo that feed on the leaves’ undersides. They are gooey because they carry their excrement on their backs, apparently for protection. You can just wipe them all off, though. You can also pick off the red adults (quickly) and squish them or throw them into soapy water. This must be done every day. Had I thought about it in spring, I could have sprinkled some kind of anti-grub substance like diatomaceous earth as the lilies poke their heads up. (Haven’t seen anything definitive in the Garden Professors’ various sites.) In New England and parts of Canada, Tetrastichus setifer wasps have been released. They attack the larvae and lay eggs so that the next spring, more wasps are hatched, rather than beetles. Pretty neat, huh?

For now, I am pinching the adults off and wiping the leaves. The larvae drop into the soil and emerge as adults within a month, according to my reading. I have noticed my lilies in containers have little or no signs of beetle. Kind of makes sense; nothing can overwinter because I usually plant them in the spring or in fall with fresh soil and no leaf debris. So that’s one thing.

The other thing is that I do not have big stands of lilies. They are sprinkled throughout the perennial beds, most of their stalks purposely hidden by shrubs and other perennials. Casualties will not be missed, at least in terms of aesthetics.

So there you have it; if I can post lots of lily pics in a few weeks, we’ll know I’ve been at least partially successful—and next spring I will be taking preventative action, if that’s what works.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Yup, I’ve got them too dammit, in the mid-Hudson Valley. And I’ve really too many lilies to pick or wipe. Mine are scattered as well, which may help with the worst of the infestation, and I find some varieties are much less infested than others. Regale lilies and their hybrids look pretty much untouched so far, fingers crossed.

  2. Yep, I’ve got there here (Massachusetts) and they killed off several plants but not all. And they aren’t equally bad every year. I don’t buy new lilies anymore, though, since I don’t know if they’re survive the pests.

  3. We’ve had them over here in Rochester for a number of years now, Elizabeth. One of the maddening things about them is that they sometimes go after a few things other than lilies, like some fritillarias. Grrrrrr! One other thing I’ll mention that’s been helpful in my battle with them – they seem to overwinter heavily in garden debris, so I make very sure that all excess litter is picked up around any lily areas. It’s helped to cut down the population.

  4. Here’s a little more unhappy news. My garden is (joyously) full of self-sown white nicotiana, and I’m finding some of the larvae on its leaves. Jeez.

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