Cucumbers’ #1 Fans

Dear (Contact First Name),

Cucumbers.  You either love them, or well, you just don’t pay that much attention to them.

Unfortunately for us, there are two insect pests that love cucumber  so much, they are actually named after them.  They are both little black beetles — one with green stripes and the other with green spots — and which people often assume are related to ladybugs.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Ladybugs are beneficial insects that eat many of the insects that prey on our crops; Spotted and Striped Cucumber Beetles are voracious pests that feed on many of the crops we grow.  The list is too long to detail here, but includes beet greens, chard, lettuce, and spinach.  Larvae of the beetles burrow into the seeds of sweet corn, beans, peas and winter squash that we plant and hollow them out before they can sprout.

Cucumber beetles eagerly feed on all members of the “cucurbit” family:  melons and watermelons, and only slightly less eagerly on winter and summer squash.  But they love, love, love cucumbers.  They actually love them to death.  When cucumber plants are transplanted into the soil, or their seeds emerge, the beetles converge upon them from all directions — including from the soil as larvae hatch.  They chew on every part of the plant, often chewing right through the stem and killing the plants.  If the plants survive, the bugs will eat the flowers and munch on the developing cucumbers when they are tiny, deforming the fruit and leaving ugly scars and scabs on them.

Very few things kill cucumber beetles.  Cold winter temperatures will freeze them, but only if it gets cold enough to seriously damage our crops.  In mild winters they hang out in our spinach or chard fields, chewing away at a slower pace than they do in the summer.  If it gets frosty, they hide themselves in our cover crop fields and hibernate until spring.

There are no organic pesticides that kill, suppress, slow down or otherwise control the beetles — and I’ve been told that even extremely toxic synthetic pesticides don’t control them very well.  The one natural predator they seem to have on our farm are swallows, who feed every evening over the cucumber patch.  Too bad the birds only stay here for a few months each year.

For years we struggled growing cucumbers — primarily trying to find varieties that were vigorous enough to outgrow the pest.  A few years back we discovered Armenian cucumbers, particularly the Painted Serpent variety.  Armenian cukes are not actually cucumbers at all, but actually a melon that when harvested at an immature stage tastes just like a cucumber.

painted serpents
Serpents in the field

Armenian cucumber plants grow much more quickly than their non-Armenian relatives.  The cucumber beetles chew on their leaves and stems just like they would any other cucumber, but the plants don’t die.  They produce more fruit than a regular cucumber, the fruits grow more quickly, and their fuzzy skin seems to deter the beetles from feeding on them (a few TFF subscribers have complained about the skin as well).  All these reasons led us a few years back to switch over completely to growing the Painted Serpents.

Sadly, there was no seed for the Painted Serpents available this year, and we used up our old seed early in the season.  For the next few weeks, you may get one in your boxes, but after that they will be gone.  Instead, we planted regular slicing cukes and are getting a rude reminder of why we stopped.

cukes
Slicing Cukes with beetle damage

Believe it or not, the cucumbers in your boxes today are the prettiest ones in the field — many others were left behind.  If the skin is scarred up, you can peel it and it should still be crunchy and sweet, with few seeds.

Thanks,

Pablito

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