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Lawn Insect Identification Guide (With Photos)

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A guide to grubs and other soil-dwelling insects

A guide to grubs and other soil-dwelling insects

Identifying Insects Found in Lawns, Grass, and Soil

The lawn-dwelling bugs or insects in this guide are ones commonly encountered by gardeners and people who spend time outside. While there are literally millions of organisms that live in soil, this guide will focus on those that we find while digging or gardening and wonder if they are consequential.

For each dirt-dwelling bug, this guide will include:

The Basics:

Scientific name: What is the Latin name for this species?

Identifying features: Quick identification guide

Habits: How the insect lives and reproduces

Reason for concern? Should you take action?

What you should do: How to handle insects you find in your lawn

Beetle grubs

Beetle grubs

1. Beetle Grubs: Family Scarabaeidae

One of the most common pests of lawns and parks in urban and suburban settings, these grubs are the larval form of common June beetles, or "June bugs." They are pale, thick-bodied scarab larvae that live underground and feed on grass roots. During population explosions, there can be hundreds in the area the size of an average lawn, with the grass often completely dead or dying.

The beetles that represent the adult form of this insect are brown, medium-sized insect often found at porch lights in the summer months. Not many people connect the grubs in the soil with the harmless brown beetle clinging to their screen door!

Control of grubs is difficult, and almost always involves toxic chemical treatments. One radical solution is to convert your grass-only lawn into a mix of flowering shrubs, ground cover, and small trees like dogwoods. Beetle grubs will no longer be a concern, and you'll have a much more interesting and varied yard.

The Basics:

Scientific name: Family Scarabaeidae

Identifying features: Pale grub with six brown legs

Habits: Live in soil and feed on grass roots

Reason for concern? They can be a pest

What you should do: Consult a lawn care expert; better yet, replant your lawn with native species and flowers!

insects-in-soil

2. Pill Bugs or Sow Bugs: Family Armidillidiidae

Pill bugs have many common names, including sow bug, woodlouse, and roly-poly; some types can roll up into a perfect little ball for protection. Most gardeners and outdoors types already know this from picking them up; after a minute or two they unfurl and began walking around on their multitude of short little legs.

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Pill bugs are actually terrestrial crustaceans, with their closest relatives still living in the sea; pill bugs actually have gills that they must keep moist in order to breathe. These cool little creatures are seldom pests or a reason for concern for gardeners or homeowners. They eat just about anything, and will typically do you more harm than good.

The Basics:

Scientific name: Family Armidillidiidae

Identifying features: Many legs, small, can roll into a ball

Habits: Live on ground and in soil; feed on organic matter

Reason for concern? No.

What you should do: Nothing – just enjoy their goofy presence!

Live moth pupae are often found in dirt.

Live moth pupae are often found in dirt.

3. Pupating Moths: Family Noctuidae and Others

Often when you are digging in dirt you will come across the pupa of some variety of moth. Although some moths spin cocoons around the pupa for protection, most species pupate underground, with no cocoon. When it's time to pupate, the caterpillar burrows into the soil, where it sheds its skin one last time, revealing the smooth brown pupal form.

If you do find a smooth brown "bug" with no legs or antennae buried a few inches in your lawn or garden, it's almost certainly a living moth pupa. Consider keeping it in a safe place to see the adult moth when it hatches out. A jar with a few sticks for the moth to climb up will do – check it every day and you should find a cool gray or brown moth one morning, freshly emerged from the pupa.

The Basics:

Scientific name: Varies; moth Lepidopterans in various families

Identifying features: Brown, smooth, no legs or antennae

Habits: Stays motionless in the dirt until the adult moth hatches out

Reason for concern? Not usually

What you should do: If you want to, you can keep the pupa and wait for it to hatch.

Cutworm caterpillar

Cutworm caterpillar

Cutworm in characteristic pose

Cutworm in characteristic pose

4. Cutworms: Family Noctuidae

More of a garden pest than a lawn pest, cutworms are very common. You will often find these brown caterpillars when digging in your garden. They will typically curl up when disturbed, and may stay that way for several hours even if you leave them alone. Cutworms are the caterpillars of moths that fly at night and lay eggs on many different kinds of garden plant. The caterpillars hatch out and eat the leaves of plants; some attack the stems at ground level, causing the entire plant to topple over; this is why they are called "cutworms."

Often the smooth brown pupae that you also find in the dirt (see above) belong to some species of cutworm. You can find out which kind by raising them to the adult.

Cutworms and other serious caterpillar outbreaks like tomato hornworms can often be controlled with diatomaceous earth, which is non-toxic and affordable.

The Basics:

Scientific name: Family Noctuidae

Identifying features: Smooth, brown, chubby

Habits: Live in dirt; feed on plants, usually at night

Reason for concern? Can be a pest

What you should do: Try diatomaceous earth as a control agent

Antllion trap dug in sandy dirt

Antllion trap dug in sandy dirt

5. Antlions: Family Myrmeleontidae

Depending on which part of the country you are in, antlions may be a very familiar ground-dwelling insect. They are fascinating creatures. The larva lives in the bottom of a conical pit in sand or loose soil, and there may be many close together. It has huge jaws, and when an ant or other insect stumbles into the pit, the antlion seizes it and eats it. Antlions have many strange features, but my favorite is that they do not poop – since they live buried bottom-first in the first, they simply store up all their waste until they pupate, when they let it all go at once. Gross, but pretty cool.

The adult antlion looks like a dragonfly, but is very fragile and non-predatory. They sometimes come to lights.

The Basics:

Scientific name: Family Myrmeleontidae

Identifying features: Dig pitfall traps in sandy soil

Habits: Predatory; wait for prey to come by and fall into trap

Reason for concern? No

What you should do: Nothing

An antlion, removed from its sand trap

An antlion, removed from its sand trap

Anyone working on their lawn or garden should keep an eye out for this growing threat.

6. Asian Jumping Worm: Amynthas agrestis

Anyone working on their lawn or garden should keep an eye out for this growing threat. The Asian jumping worm is a species of worm in the family Megascolecidae. They look like your basic earthworm, with no remarkable features or markings, but their behavior that sets them apart. When you're digging in the dirt in your garden and come across Asian jumping worms, you'll know it – they really freak out, writhing and twisting so energetically that it almost seems like they could get air, hence the common name. They are also generally found in groups, and unearthing a passel of these worms flipping out all at once is both surprising and a little bit creepy.

These worms pose a serious problem for North America, because, like most invasive species, they multiply faster than native earthworms and eat up all the resources that native worms need to survive. They also do not enrich the soil the same way native worms do.

One of the main ways to control Amynthas agrestis is to conduct a controlled burn. This method destroys the leaf litter that the worms need for cover as part of their life cycle. While this may work for large farms and parks, it's not likely practical for gardeners. If you have jumping worms living in your garden soil, do not chop them up with your shovel! Instead, scoop up as many of you can, put them in a garbage bag, and leave them in the sun for at least 30 minutes, which will kill them. Then simply throw the bag away.

The Basics:

Scientific name: Amynthas agrestis

Identifying features: Look like regular worms, but very quick and active

Habits: In soil

Reason for concern? Yes!

What you should do: Don't chop them up; put in plastic bag and drop in garbage

A garden Symphalan

A garden Symphalan

7. Garden Symphylan: Subphylum Myriapoda

These unusual creatures are also known as "garden centipedes," are soil-dwelling arthropods that you may come across while digging in your garden. These pale, innocuous little bugs can cause problems by feeding on seedlings and new root growth, which can weaken a young plant enough to stunt its growth.

Symphylans are likely very ancient insects. They are only distantly related to centipedes. They begin life with 6 pairs of legs, but then add a new pair every time they shed their skin ("moult"), up to 12 pairs. Symphylans also have no eyes. They use their long antennae as sensory organs.

The Basics:

Scientific name: Subphylum Myriapoda

Identifying features: Look like small, pale centipedes

Habits: Live in dirt

Reason for concern? Not usually, but can sometimes be a pest

What you should do: Consult lawn care professional if necessary

A centipede

A centipede

8. Centipedes: Class Chilopoda

Most people are familiar with the common brown house centipede, harmless creatures that scuttle around in your basement, especially when you move a box they have been hiding under. There are many closely related centipede species that don't live in your house, but instead spend their lives in dirt and leaf litter. You'll often find them when you turn over stones or boards outside, even in the colder moths.

Soil-dwelling centipedes are harmless and will not do damage to your garden or lawn. On the contrary, they feed on a wide variety of the insects and bugs that will do damage, making them a beneficial addition to your local fauna.

The Basics:

Scientific name: Class Chilopoda

Identifying features: Many long legs and body segments

Habits: Live in soil, under logs, and other low places

Reason for concern? No, although some larger species can bite

What you should do: Nothing

A typical mole cricket

A typical mole cricket

9. Mole Crickets: Family Gryllotalpidae

It's not often that you'll encounter one of these cool insects, but it does happen, especially in the South, where they are more common. They can occasionally become pests in lawns and grassy areas.

Mole crickets are burrowing insects family Gryllotalpidae; they're related to grasshoppers and non-burrowing crickets. They are beautifully designed for their habitat, with a cylindrical body and strong, shovel-like front legs that are perfectly developed for digging.

There are many species of mole crickets, spread around most of the globe. Some are predatory on other insects. Species that feed on plants may in some cases become agricultural pests, although this is unusual.

Mole crickets have a very loud and distinctive call; one reason it's so loud is the design of their borrow, which is built in a horn shape. The cricket sits at the mouth of this borrow and makes its call, which is amplified by the burrow/horn!

The Basics:

Scientific name: Family Gryllotalpidae

Identifying features: Robust; brown; strong front legs

Habits: Dig and burrow in dirt, like a mole

Reason for concern? Not usually

What you should do: Nothing

A Mole Cricket and Its Extra-Loud Call

Mole crickets have a very loud and distinctive call; one reason it's so loud is the design of their borrow, which is built in a horn shape.

Dampwood termites

Dampwood termites

10. Dampwood Termites: Genus Zootermopsis

Termites resemble ants, but are paler, have less-defined body segments, and are slower moving; it may take a magnifying glass to make a positive identification. Termites are also seldom found out and about; they stick to their colonies and travel on one single path. They do not attack lawns, but you may find them while digging close to your house.

Termites may look like ants, but they are infinitely more destructive. Dampwood termites feed on wood. A termite colony, established in the beams and wood siding of your house, can literally destroy your entire home.

One of the earliest signs of an infestation are piles of droppings, which look like pale pellets and build up under their nest. Another sign that you may have termites is high numbers of dead insects and discarded wings, which occur when the insects swarm and then shed their no-longer necessary wings.

Because these insects are subterranean, they live underground and construct tubes to move in, like long winding tunnels. These tubes may be visible on the walls of your basement.

If you have a strong suspicion that you have termites, call an exterminator immediately. There's no other way to take care of this urgent problem.

The Basics:

Scientific name: Genus Zootermopsis

Identifying features: Look like pale, soft-bodied ands; may have long wings

Habits: Live in damp soil and eat wood

Reason for concern? Yes!

What you should do: Call a pest control company immediately

Deep-fried cicada nymphs!

Deep-fried cicada nymphs!

11. Cicada Nymphs: Superfamily Cicadoidea

When digging in your lawn or garden, you may come across a cicada nymph or two. Nearly everyone is familiar with cicadas to some extent; in many places their loud, strident song is the soundtrack of summer. Some cicada species are also famous for their swarms, which occur in North America every 13 or 17 years, depending on the region. During a hatch year, millions of adult cicadas emerge at once, which overwhelms predators and virtually guarantees that enough individuals will be able to find mates and reproduce.

Cicada nymphs are the larval forms of cicadas. This stage of the cicada's life is pent underground, where the insects burrow through the soil and feed on tree roots. Cicada nymphs may spend anywhere from one to 17 years underground, after which they craw to the surface and up the trunk of the nearest tree. The skin on the insect's back splits open, and out comes the adult cicada.

The shells that the dirt-dwelling cicada nymph leave behind on trees, walls, and fence posts are another indelible part of late summer throughout broad swathes of North America.

The Basics:

Scientific name: Superfamily Cicadoidea

Identifying features: Large, slow-moving; prominent claws for digging

Habits: Live for years in soil, feeding on tree roots

Reason for concern? Not usually

What you should do: Nothing

Yellow ants tending to root aphids

Yellow ants tending to root aphids

12. Root Aphids: Rhopalosiphum Rufiabdominale

Root aphids are essentially leaf aphids that have evolved to live underground, feeding on plant roots the same their upstairs relatives feed on leaves and stems. They do not generally attack lawns or grass, but can damage other plants. Over time, their feeding can seriously damage the host plant causing wilting and browning with no visible cause; digging up affected plant may reveal the tiny insects among the dirt surrounding the roots.

You will probably never see root aphids, since they are tiny and never leave the soil in which they live. Root aphids are usually dark green with brown, red, or yellow markings. Their life-cycle can be very unusual, and may under some circumstances involve asexual reproduction.

The Basics:

Scientific name: Rhopalosiphum Rufiabdominale

Identifying features: Very small, pale insects that live in soil and feed on roots

Habits: Soil

Reason for concern? Can be a pest!

What you should do: Consult a lawn care professional

Typical rove beetle

Typical rove beetle

13. Rove Beetles: Family Staphylinidae

Rove beetles are one of the most common insects on the planet, but very few people notice them. Even a gardener who spends long days digging in the dirt will likely miss these little insects right under their nose.

Even though there are thousands upon thousands of different kinds of rove beetle, they all look very much the same: long, flexible body, short, stubby wing covers ("elytra"), and a large head, often with prominent mandibles. Rove beetles are generally predatory, grabbing and eating other insects when the opportunity presents. In this capacity they are almost never a pest species on lawns or in grass, although they will prey on beneficial and destructive insects alike.

There is much more to know about this fascinating group; to paraphrase the famous line about cats, time spent learning about rove beetles is never wasted.

The Basics:

Scientific name: Family Staphylinidae

Identifying features: Elongated body, short wing covers

Habits: Live on ground and in soil; predaceous

Reason for concern? No

What you should do: Nothing

A typical ground beetle, family Carabidae

A typical ground beetle, family Carabidae

14. Ground Beetles: Family Carabidae

Ground beetles are those shiny, brown or black beetles you see scurrying across the sidewalk. Ground beetles live among the dirt and leaf litter in lawns, grass, and virtually any outside environment, where they prey upon other insects. Since ground beetles don't attack plants, they are rarely a garden pest; however they, like rove beetles (above) prey indiscriminately on beneficial and destructive insects alike.

Some ground beetles are copper or green colored; some varieties, like the fiery searcher, are large and quite beautiful.

The Basics:

Scientific name: Family Carabidae

Identifying features: Small black beetles; fast; live on ground

Habits: On ground; in dirt; under leaf litter

Reason for concern? Not usually

What you should do: Nothing

Wireworm

Wireworm

15. Wireworms: Family Elateridae

Anyone with an interest in fishing likely knows what a wireworm is; they are also a popular food for captive lizards. Gardeners will sometimes find them in the soil, where they live and grow on their way to becoming their adult form.

Wireworms are beetle larvae, so their life in the dirt is very similar to other soil-dwelling larvae, including the grubs that grow up to become June bugs. Adult wireworms are called click beetles, an insect that some of us may remember from childhood. These beetles have the ability to bend and snap back their bodies, creating an audible "click!" and launching them into the air. They typically do this when left on their back, which is a vulnerable position; the surprise of the sudden click and leap into the air, combined with the chance that they will land right-side up, makes this design a very effective form of protection from predators.

The Basics:

Scientific name: Family Elateridae

Identifying features: Long, thin, brown

Habits: Live in soil

Reason for concern? Not usually

What you should do: Nothing

Adult wireworms are called click beetles, an insect that some of us may remember from childhood. These beetles have the ability to bend and snap back their bodies, creating an audible "click!" and launching them into the air.

All About Fire Ants

16. Fire Ant Nest

Ants should be familiar to anyone; they are only included in this guide because of one group, the fire ants. These ants are small, red or black, and are among the most aggressive of any insect on the planet. It takes very little – standing in flip flops within a foot or two of a nest – for them to swarm and attack. When a fire and (or virtually any ant) bites, they grab and cut with their pincers, and then spray formic acid in the cut. It happens very quickly, and it results in a little acid burn; enough of these little bites and you will be in serious discomfort.

Red imported fire ants, or RIFA, are a serious problem for homeowners and gardiners throughout the South and Southeast. Getting rid of them is very difficult.

The Basics:

Scientific name: Family Formicidae, genus Solenopsis

Identifying features: Small black ants; often a large, visible mound of dirt

Habits: Aggressive; will swarm and bite with little provocation

Reason for concern? Yes

What you should do: Call a lawn care professional

insects-in-soil

17. Ground Wasps (Yellowjackets): Family Vespidae

There are many kinds of wasps and bees that nest in lawns; most are solitary insects that are seldom noticed by most people. The primary species of ground-swelling wasps that can become a problem is the yellowjacket, a yellow and black insect that can be quite aggressive in defense of its nest. There can be hundreds of individuals in one nest, and their nest can extend for six feet or more under the ground.

If you do have a yellow jacket nest in your lawn, there are effective ways to deal with it; one of the simplest is to wait until night, when the wasps are generally inactive, and then quickly place a large glass mixing bowl over the entrance. The bees will be confused by the clear barrier, and the heat created by the bowl in the sun will kill most of the inhabitants of the nest.

The Basics:

Scientific name: Family Vespidae

Identifying features: Yellow and black wasps; nearly invisible hole in the ground

Habits: Live and nest in soil; feed on other insects and fallen fruit

Reason for concern? Yes, if there's a risk of being stung

What you should do: Try placing a glass bowl over the nest (see video)

Resources

The following sources were used for this guide:

https://www.webmd.com/allergies/fire-ant-stings

https://www.epestsupply.com/dampwood_termites.php

https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/mole-cricket-management-in-turfgrass/

https://www.britannica.com/animal/antlion

https://www.britannica.com/animal/wood-louse

https://www.canr.msu.edu

https://www.canr.msu.eduhttps://www.canr.msu.edu/news/root_aphids_the_underground_pest_on_succulent_plants

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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