AN ADMIRATION OF VINE WEEVILS
being a treatise on how to avoid a gardening disaster
You'd think by the title that I was in great favour of these little blighters. Not a bit. I spend a good deal of time trying to eradicate the critters.
This article is written under the assumption that you reading this have no idea what a vine weevil looks like. You may have heard them mentioned, but wouldn't know one if you saw one. Once upon a time, it seems many moons ago, I was in that blissfully ignorant stage. By the time you've read this, you will be far better informed than I was when I was at that curious first stage, just like you are now.
If you're already an experienced gardener, an old hand, you've done all the bugs and diseases and have the 'T'-shirt to boot, so stop pulling that face. You'll know all of this already, and probably are already getting the heeby-jeebies just thinking about them. Reading this will just bring back bad memories. Go and make some tea instead and steady your nerves.
My 'apparent admiration' comes from an extensive period of informal and generally enforced study of this bug. I say 'bug', but that overall terms can mean and bring to mind many things, from a micro-virus to large, obnoxious biting insects.
The knowledge I now have about these creatures stems from a great mistake I made some five or six years ago. One I hope never to repeat, and this article is designed to hopefully warn others of the disaster that befalls your garden if you made the same mistakes as myself. My mistake has proved to be costly, not least in time. This knowledge, unscientific though it may be, has been very hard earnt. I'm only a novice gardener, still learning, and not in the same league as my grandparents who could have told me all about what is written below. Nor am I a scientist, nor a botanist. I'm an amateur, and paid the price for sheer ignorance.
Up to five years ago, I didn't even know what a vine weevil looked like. Believe me, I sorely now wished that I had, and at that time had the benefit of an article such as this. A recent article I saw in a gardening magazine spoke generally of a range of common garden pests, and when the writer came to explaining vine weevils, he described them as 'a very bad bug, in fact, just about the baddest bug of all.' He was a master of understatement and no mistake.
He said they're common, and I suppose in areas heavily infested with them, perhaps they are. The trouble is, for them to be numerous enough to be classed as 'common' would mean an infestation that in all probability would leave you with hardly any plants left, especially if you grow a lot in pots, baskets and tubs. They're not really a problem in the garden soil itself, in flower beds and the like. But they love pots and baskets, particularly potted up with rich moist compost, like life itself. And for a vine weevil, and his life cycle, a nice moist compost is simply heaven on earth.
I mention 'he', but those that know about these pests will know they are neither he nor she; they're both. They don't need a mate. In some ways, that makes them harder to get rid of, for they reproduce plentifully as you will discover.
So how will you know you have them? You may be fortunate enough to actually see one if there is only one or two, or maybe three, that have been recently introduced to your lovely garden. It's not that they're tiny, or hard to see, when you know where or when to look. More on the where and when later.
Firstly, I can't proceed with this discourse without imploring any new or would be gardener to learn now, and take note, of what these little horrors look like. I mean implore most sincerely, passionately, for I was sort of warned about these some years ago, but didn't take that step of identifying what they looked like. How I would recognise one if I saw one. For those that are interested, there's a couple of pictures at the bottom of this article.
If your curiosity causes you to read this far, I suspect you wouldn't recognise one either. I use the analogy of a ship and its lifeboats. Why wait until the ship is sinking before you go to see if you can find a lifeboat. Take it from me, when you see the first one of these, your ship is already taking water, and you will sink fairly soon if you don't know what to do and which drastic steps to take. For they don't come singly. If you see one, you will have more. Oh yes, by crikey, there will be more. Hope there's less than a dozen or so, and you catch the lot before they start laying new eggs. If you don't, you're garden is in big trouble next year.
They get a brief mention from time to time in TV gardening programmes. All the main presenters down through history, from Percy Thrower, onwards will have covered them. But I've not so far seen any presenter really emphasise that you should get to know this little beast BEFORE you see one in real life. For by then, it will probably be too late, and cost you as small fortune. You'll see plenty about slugs and snails; these are worse, far worse. You can find slugs and snails in daytime if you move enough tubs and pots and keep on top of them. You won't find vine weevils so easily.
As I've already hinted, it is unlikely, in my opinion, that if you do see one in your garden, there will be at least two more. And you're most likely to get them by bringing home an infected plant.
This is how we got ours.
It all started as a normal trip to a local garden centre, where we bought two or three plants. But we were so taken with one plant in particular that we couldn't resist it. In a tall pot, with a mass of tall-stemmed blue flowers. A bright blue aster-type plant, we just weren't sure how to treat it. It was early spring, the threat of frosts had no yet passed, so just for the one night, we placed it, still in its carrier bag, in a corner of the kitchen. As you do.
When we went into the kitchen later in the evening, we could scarcely believe our eyes. My wife went first, to make some late evening drinks. I heard her let out a cross between a scream and a gasp. I rushed through the house, and saw the little blighters for the first time. Lots, perhaps nearly a dozen, of these horrible little beetles, crawling about our kitchen floor, and some were already up the wall tiles.
They're not fast movers, they move very deliberately and reasonably slowly. They're easy to catch, don't take wing or hurriedly pop down a hole or crack in the skirting as a spider or an ant would. A brush and dustpan, and we soon swept them up, and not being that slow on the uptake, we realised immediately where they must have come from. We looked inside the carrier bag containing our new prize, and there were several more yet to make a run for it. So that was that mystery solved.
My memory is suspect now, for I can't recall what I did with the ones I swept up. I think, as daft as it may sound, that I stepped outside and down the garden a short way, and slung them into the flower beds and out into the night. Yes, I can hear all you veterans of this fight let out a big hoot of laughter. Big mistake, but probably no worse than what I did next.
Of course, frost or no frost, that darned plant could not stay in the house, so it was immediately, if not quicker, evicted out into the back yard. Second big mistake, for what I should have done was tip all the swept up beetles ( that's what they look like, beetles, for a vine weevil is a sort of beetle) back into the bag with the plant, sealed the bag to prevent any more escapes, and put it in the dustbin. There's no humane way to kill these pests, but they have to be got rid of.
Of course, looking back now, we should have returned the plant to the garden centre the very next day and showed them the unfortunate additions they gave us with our blue aster. Whereupon they would have refunded our money; they could hardly have done anything else with the evidence in front of them, and it may well have saved them a lot of grief too, perhaps including their business.
The chances are that our plant was not the only one so infected, and many more customers must have also taken vine weevils home that day. I like to think that other customers, realising what they had on their hands far quicker than I, took their plants in such huge numbers that this contributed in no small way to that particular garden centre closing down not all that long after. Though in fairness to the garden centre, they almost certainly had them imported in infected plants in the first place. They came in from somewhere.
So by evicting our plant outdoors overnight, all the remaining weevils made their escape and found many more bijou residences in our many tubs and pots scattered around. They must have thought all their birthdays had come at once. Sadly, the plant we had bought that caused all the trouble did not survive, which I put down back then to not having the right climate. If I recall, it was not a particularly good summer, heat and humidity were in short supply, and being as this was marketed as a popular Mediterranean plant better suited to conservatories or garden rooms, and we only had a warm outdoor yard that is a sun-trap when it is hot, I put its demise down to 'natural causes.'
By and large, that summer, we saw no more of the weevils. It's not that they were not around. Oh yes they were. By my estimation, there must have been a good two or three dozen roaming about, but I was not looking in the right places, nor at the right time. No, they were quietly feeding up on leaves and laying their eggs deep in the pots. It was the next summer that we started to pay the price for our stupidity and ignorance. And have been so paying ever since.
Now, you'll want to know what one really looks like. Click here for images from the internet, or just go into Google or Bing, and type vine weevil and do the image search. They're the dark grey, six-legged insects with light brown to almost orange speckles on their back, and two very long feelers or antlers, longer than their actual heads.
The first of the signs you'll probably notice is a curious notched edge to the leaves of some of your plants. You may at first put this down to caterpillars, or leaf-cutter bees, or slugs and snails. They are particularly fond of fuchsias, pelargoniums, chrysanthemums, new leaves on low growing roses, in my garden anyway. Other mainly herbaceous plants prone to attack, according to garden websites, are Camellia, Rhododendron, Euonymus, Clematis and Wisteria, amongst others. Those last two are noteworthy, they are climbing vine-type plants, and these little monsters are not called vine weevils for nothing.
One common pot plant they adore are cyclamen. I've had cyclamen growing on in pots in preparation to plant out, and when the plant has apparently suddenly died, lifted the bulb to find not a single trace of any root. Their grubs had scoffed the lot, but more on the grubs later.
Likewise, strawberries, raspberries and tayberries growing in tubs seem to be attractive. I've found them actually eating the flowers before the strawberries proper start to form. Even up sweet-peas, growing in a tub, though I think that was a case of them roaming about from some other rose and fuchsia tubs nearby. They are very given to climbing; canes, sticks, walls, trellis, and can reach good heights. I've found them as high as over the back kitchen window and under the guttering as they traverse the length of the wall from one set of pots to another. Note those tiny claw hooks on the ends of their feet. Agility is another thing to admire about them but when you have them, this admiration will be short-lived.
They do like an astonishingly wide range of plants, and my experience is that once you have a lot of them, they can be found almost anywhere. I've found them on plants I would never have expected to find them, if the online advice is anything to go by. Over the past few years, I've been continously surprised at some of the places I have found them. My advice is be watchful, don't rule anything out.
My surprise last summer, 2014, has been to find two on top of a small choisya, or mock orange. One I was able to drop into a bowl, the other fell down into the bush and escaped. I spent ages looking for the little varmint, including a long time searching the same bush for several nights afterwards, without success. I would have guessed that choisya leaves were too fleshy, too much to handle, and too fragrant with a scent not unlike basil. But there they were, feasting away. And choisya isn't in the list of target plants named by experts.
You'll rarely see them during the day, they are the ultimate nocturnal creature, though I did catch one heading home after a late night out (his, not mine) as it crossed our yard at 11am in the morning. Other sites advise to go out at night with a torch, some say a dim torch, but I've not found using a bright torch to be a disadvantage, far from it. The reason some suggest using a dim torch is that the weevils supposedly respond to a bright light by immediately dropping off the leaf, or plant, and then you've lost them. But I've not found that to be true. They may make a move to get under a leaf in the first place, but generally, they don't drop until touched with whatever object you use to catch them. As far as I know, they don't bite, but I've always been loathe to pick one up. They really are off-putting little horrors, even to someone used to killing other bugs with fingers on sight.
Now here lies the rub, for when I say 'go out at night', I don't just mean late evening. I've caught most of mine after midnight, sometimes well after. I don't go to bed early, and I usually pop outside with a torch at sometimes gone 1am, but that is the time you will catch them. I know that is no use whatsoever to someone who has to be up early for work. Until I retired, I was a shift worker as well, and 5am starts don't sit happily with weevil patrols at gone midnight. But it has to be done.
As well as on the leaves of a plant themselves, you're just as likely to see them on the rims of pots and containers, or climbing nearby walls in search of more plants. They must have a phenomenal and very selective sense of smell. If you mistakenly introduce one to your plot, it will find its favourite plant that very night and home in on it in double quick time.
It's not so much the damage they do by eating the leaves that makes them such a horrible and hated pest. It's what their grubs do to the roots. They're killers! They can kill a plant stone dead in just a few weeks, and the first you'll probably notice is when the plant obviously looks sick, under distress, leaves falling, etc. You may mistake these signs for lack of water, especially in a dry spell.
One plant particularly noticeable in its effect are violas and pansies. The plant starts to go over, and then we have a bit of strong wind or a gale, and the next you know, your plant is now blowing away up the garden like a ball of fluff. You puzzle as to how the hell that could have come out. No longer attached to pot or container, it's been sheared off at the roots by the grubs of newly forming weevils. When you dig down, you'll find there are no roots left. Eaten, all gone.
And as you dig down a bit to investigate, that's probably when you'll see your first vine weevil grub 'in the flesh.' Like the adult weevil, they are not a pretty sight, creamy-white and slightly wrinkled, almost a 'C' shape, with a brown to almost orange head. See the pictures on the web. Get to know them. You really need to know one when you see it, or you'll regret it. If you happen to be a fisherman, I'll bet you'll save them in a plastic container as bait. I could well imagine fish going for them.
The result of my foolishness, in not knowing, has been an ongoing infestation over a period of five or six years, which I feel I am only just starting to get on top of. But that is only by assiduously searching for the adults in summer by night, and the grubs in spring by day by sifting through endless pots of compost to exterminate them one by one. Actually, provided you place them in a deep enough tray or pot from which they cannot wriggle out to escape, blackbirds love them and will clear a tray of several dozen in very short order.
I've never found any mention anywhere of which predators find the adult weevils attractive enough to eat. They're typically a beetle in that they have a hard shell, actually made by their wings fusing together, so whereas they may have been a winged beetle back in ancient history, they are now flightless. Perhaps hedgehogs, if we had any in our garden, would find them a treat, but we've not seen one of those in many years. Perhaps there are some birds who would sample them, the larger ones like crows, and magpies. But being nocturnal, that's hardly likely.
Of course, almost immediately after introducing this infestation to my garden, I did look them up on the web for advice. Exactly what were they, friend or foe? The general rule of thumb is that if it moves quickly, like rain beetles and other creatures that get a move on, it is probably friendly to gardeners. I really didn't know. If it moves slowly, ponderously, then it's probably your enemy. Vine weevils are in the middling bracket there, neither swift, nor that slow. They can soon get a move on when discovered if you don't pick them off your plants quick, and yes, once they realise they are rumbled when you touch them with something, they simply drop off the plant and down into the foilage and make their escape. Fortunately, with pots, they are easier to catch.
They do seem to like being on the top of a plant, out in the night air. Which is just as well, or they'd be harder still to find. I frequently find them on top of the leaves on the outer edges of plants like fuchsias and chrysanthemums. So I go round with a torch, yes, and a small plastic bowl. The sort of throwaway bowl that christmas puddings come in is ideal, preferably of a lighter colour than the common red. That's because, outside in the dark, when you have caught one, you need to see if and when it starts to make its escape by climbing the sides. I put a little water in the bottom of the bowl. When they first fall in from the plant, they usually land upside down, and have a great struggle to right themselves onto their legs. Water makes it even harder for them as the water tension seems to anchor them upside down for a while.
Having caught one, whilst you're carefully looking over your plants with your torch, they can be up and over the side in no time. A bit like a toddler that's just learnt to walk, that you wouldn't expect to be able to move far or all that fast, they can disappear with astonishing speed if you're not careful. But that depends on whether you wish to despatch them straightaway. I tend to gather them up, three or four together when I was finding a lot of them, and take them back to my bench to do the despatching.
They have to be killed, and you have to know they have been killed. You cannot afford escapees. If one gets out, you must look for it. One escapee will breed several dozen others in the course of a season, and then next year, you'll be off again.
You could use a small stick, or anything long and pointed, to knock them from the leaf and straight into the bowl as you hold it underneath the branch. But I use large garden scissors. It's a mistake to believe you can despatch them on the leaf, say by chopping them in half with the scissors. Yes, you may get an accurate hit, but believe me, if you miss, it will drop, and it's gone. Even in a container, you'll have a hell of a job finding the little sod, especially if you have several plants in there.
You'll find that you can't always get the bowl directly under the leaf to catch the weevil when it drops. Much depends on the plant, on how big it is, how large the leaves are, and whether they overhang the sides of the pot. If you can 'drop' the weevils onto a path or slabs, fine. Even in the dark, you will hear it drop with a noticeable click. But they may still be quick enough to make their escape. So I use the scissors in the first place like large pair of tweezers to pick one off and drop it into the bowl. And it's the scissors I use to despatch them, by cutting their heads off. You really need three hands, one to hold the torch, one to hold the bowl, and another to do the execution with the scissors. That's why I take them back to the bench where I can put the bowl down and thence kill several at once.
One thing I have found, that may prove a useful tip. Don't expect a quick tour round your tubs with a torch will do the trick. I go round them all, at least twice. First trip round, you'll miss the ones hiding under a leaf, or still climbing a hidden stem deep under the leaves. Go round again 10 minutes later, and you'll exclaim, 'where did that little devil come from!' Once you know you have an infestation, two inspections ten minutes apart will pay dividends.
As to timing, I really do think now that they know when midnight is, they have clocks, or they can hear our town hall clock strike twelve. In high summer, they have about four hours to set to and feed up. Other than weevils, one other advantage of late patrols is that I catch and kill an enormous number of slugs and snails at the same time, and this has probably been the only cloud with a silver lining in the whole business.
By the first spring after I introduced them, I had done some more research online, and spoke to other people. One mention of vine weevil, and all experienced gardeners will pull a face and frown. You will get sympathy, almost like with a death in the family, and lots of advice. Like, throw away any infected plant, and all its compost. Burn the plant on a bonfire, or dispose of to the tip, and certainly not into your composter. Wash the pots out thoroughly.
But you start off hoping things are not as bad as that, it all seems rather drastic. Despite the trouble I would have had, taking bags and bags of compost to the tip, throwing away what appeared to be healthy plants we'd paid good money for, it was good advice, and I should have followed it. It would have been cheaper in the long run.
In the event, that spring, I spent hours and hours emptying tubs and pots one by one, and sifting carefully through the compost. I found grubs alright, plenty of them. I recall in one round tall pedestal pot, I found nearly three dozen grubs. Nowhere is out of reach, not even baskets hanging on wires.
Over time, that year and in the years since, I've learnt to recognise just where I will find the grubs. What I failed to realise is that before they are recognisable grubs, they are merely the tiniest of eggs, and however carefully you go through the compost, with a view to using it again, it's the eggs you miss. Amply illustrated when I started to suspect that a plant I'd already had out the pot once, and cleaned its roots, may still be suffering attack, so I lifted it again. Yes, there were the usual three grubs in close harmony.
For that is the other thing I've learnt. The adults seem to lay their eggs close together and usually three or four at a time, and as a rule, at least an inch or two below the surface. After that, they can be found almost in layers going deep down, almost to the bottom. They prefer compost to garden soil, so if that's what's in the bottom of your containers, that's as far as they will go. If there are roots to feed on, they'll eat them. Shallow roots for plants like new violas, deeper roots for established fuchsias and pelargoniums.
In the early days, I was frequently astonished at how deep I would find them. In a pot that had say, six plants arranged around the edge, I would discover the first grub and know I was going to find at least two more very close by. As I lifted a plant, perhaps newly planted violas, or a young plug fuchsia, I would carefully remove the compost with a large spoon or plastic mini trowel. This is not a job to go in mob-handed with large tools. You have to break apart every clump of compacted compost to be sure of getting every one. Clumps will often fall apart by themselves, revealing the little cosy den they make for themselves and all curled up within. Occasionally, you'll be lucky and in one fist-sized clump of compressed compost, you may find all three together as they drop out of their dens. Then you go deeper down, removing the compost for sifting, and there they are, usually again three, sometimes four, grubs close by each other, maybe an inch or so apart. Each grub, once hatched and fed up on your leaves, has the potential to lay many dozens more for next year.
When they're very young, they are tiny. If you have whitish grit or chippings, then the job of spotting them is harder. Mother nature seems to have designed the grubs to camouflage themselves against background grit or tiny stones. If your compost is mixed with white vermiculite, you really have a hard job on. You sift the compost, and see what you think is a grub fall back into the bucket of your sorted mix, and so go back in there searching around to dig it out. I've lost count of the number of 'grubs' I've carefully lifted out only to discover that it's as hard as granite and no grub at all. Your eyes will go squiffy with looking. I've thrown compost into the bucket, thinking it was sorted, only to find the odd grub wiggling about later. I used to go through my buckets twice, and still didn't eradicate them from one year to the next. That's where a certain amount of guarded admiration comes in, for they are very clever.
So we came to the third year. I was still at work then, weekend time was precious and I couldn't face the task of emptying and sorting all the tubs again. It had been a long, laborious job the year before. So it was time to resort to the big guns, a chemical control.
There is really only one product on the market that gardeners recommend, and that's Provado, by Bayer. Which you heavily dilute, I must admit, and it's based on paraffin amongst other chemicals and compounds. (Definitely NOT to be used on fruit bushes or plants, so I can't use that on our strawberry tub). But it was then over ten quid a bottle, more now, and not a big bottle at that! We bought one, and used it, mostly on the three or four pots we couldn't empty because they had climbing plants, clematis, wisteria, etc, that were secured to a wall and trellis. I could dig down and clear a certain depth of pot, and found the usual stock of grubs, but eventually come to the roots of the climbers we'd spent years growing and didn't want to disturb. So emptying and clearing every pot wasn't even an option. And the weevils know it. I'd see them waving at me with their horrendously long feelers!
Other controls are nematodes, bought from garden centres or on the internet, just as expensive as using Provado, and said to be more effective. Other online advice is to plant up 'bait plants' in pots where you know you have an infection. Then simply go round those plants and pick the adults off to dispose of them, and finally throw the plants away to the tip or bonfire before the winter sets in. That's where the eggs and new grubs will be, so job done. It seems that large market gardeners use the 'bait plant' method as well as chemical and biological controls, and geraniums or chrysanthemums are favourite baits.
My trials are not over. It is now past 1am, and I am now going to go out on my nightly weevil patrol and see what I can find. To date, I now seem to find a couple perhaps every other night or so. I'm still not sure whether their life cycle does actually take one complete year, or whether eggs laid in the spring are not coming out as adults in the autumn. Our warming climate may be changing their behaviour, evolution in progress as we speak. Online advice says that the adults come out on warm summer evenings in August to feed on leaves before retiring underground to lay their eggs for the following year. Don't you believe it. I've been finding adults at night since the early spring, and on quite cool nights too. Even after rain, when leaves are wet, I still found the odd one where it had found dry leaves sheltering under wet ones above.
Talking of wet, I might add that even in winter when the pots and tubs are soggy wet top to bottom, the grubs still survive to hatch in the spring. Whilst still in the compost, nothing seems to drown them no matter how wet it gets. I'm sure they can swim! They really are a nightmare and do take some getting rid of. I said 'admiration' is a little too strong a term, but the more I've learnt, the more I tip my hat to them. They're clever little sods and no mistake.
I hope this discourse had been of help, but really, the very easiest way is to learn what they look like, adults and grubs, before you get them, fix it in your mind, and never allow them onto your plot in the first place. New gardeners will hear lots about carrot fly, whitefly, blackfly and every other sort of fly, slugs n' snails, and other pests galore, but these are a pest apart, take it from me. The old gardener who first told me about them, when he encouraged me to get into fuchsias, would smile now at this long 'admiration' of these creatures. I didn't take enough note, or take in what he was telling me. I was warned. It's not like the old days where you would have had to go to the library to find gardening books to see what they look like, or ask around for advice; you can find any number of pictures of the critters and their grubs on the web for free, and quickly.
There's no excuse for ignorance, or not knowing, now you've read this. If you've stayed with this article this far, you're not likely to forget it now. I'm not going to wish you 'happy weevil hunting', for if you have them, you will not be happy. Happy is not what you will be. You're more likely to be hopping than happy, hopping mad that you have them, and looking for the rotten swine who gave or sold you the plant that brought them home.
But at least if you know what to do, you'll have a head start. Happiness is not a cigar called Hamlet, it's a garden free of vine weevils along with a good internet connection. If you have both, you are truly blessed.
If you have an infestation, and a diabolical or no internet connection, then meaningful life is over and you may as well take the Provado yourself.
Either way, Good Luck!