Imagine this: you are taking a gorgeous stroll through your garden when you find that your kale plants have holes eaten straight through them, or worse, they were eaten whole overnight. Without a pest insight, it can get hard to judge exactly what bug had a feast on your growing greens! This leaves many people to question “what’s eating my kale?”
As with most garden greens, there is a slew of different bugs that forage on your kale. Some of the most common bugs and insects that love eating kale include:
- Cabbage Loopers
- Flea beetles
- Cabbage worms
- Diamondback moths
- Common Caterpillars
Along with most other gardeners, I am sure that you are pretty tired of your kale being eaten. Keep reading to learn more about the bugs that love your kale, and some ways you can try to repel them!
Aphids Are A Common Kale Loving Bug
Aphids are the bane of every gardener’s existence! They are small, hard to track, and of course, they can cause devastating damage to most of your garden vegetables. (Monitor these veggies specifically!)
According to Texas A&M University, most aphid species have a particular liking for cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, etc.). This means that kale is high on the list of what they would like to eat from your garden.
Aphids usually drink the sugar water, or phloem from the plants they prey upon. To do this, they pierce through the underside of leaves and suck out the liquid.
Due to their preferred method of eating, they don’t leave any holes or physical damage in kale leaves. However, they take a toll on the plant, as aphids truly love kale. Some telltale signs of aphids include:
- A sticky substance on kale leaves
- Drooping or curling leaves
- Yellowing or browning leaves
In most cases, if your plant looks like has malnutrition or is “sick,” it could be aphids!
Aphids are also a tremendous problem because they are born ready to reproduce, with young offspring already inside of them. Crazy, right? This means that by the time you finish repelling/getting rid of one generation, another one will already cause you additional problems.
In addition to kale, there are a few other garden plants that aphids like to eat. Here’s a list of the most common flowers that aphids love!
How To Stop Aphids From Getting To Your Kale
Now that we have discussed why aphids are such a problem, we can talk about how you can get rid of them. Luckily, aphids are pretty easy to get rid of, and you can normally do it for free!
If you find aphids on a specific plant, you can get rid of them by physically brushing them off. To do this, you may want to use gloves, or you can use a soft-bristled brush.
If those methods aren’t working well, most gardeners also agree that the shower setting on your hose is also great for knocking aphids off! Getting something like this INNAV8 Water Hose Nozzle Sprayer can allow you to use a few strong settings to knock aphids away.
You can also use specific scents to keep aphids away from your kale plants!
Cabbage Loopers Love Kale
Although they have a fun and unique name, cabbage loopers are the caterpillar form of a very common moth. In their caterpillar form, cabbage loopers grow quite large, and are usually bright green.
Cabbage loopers also love cruciferous vegetables, especially ones with succulent leaves such as kale. They usually stick on the underside of a plant’s leaves and eat in small sections, eventually boring through the entire leaf.
Normally when you catch cabbage looper damage, it will look like small circular holes throughout the entire leaf, sometimes with a sticky substance outlining them
As for reproduction, cabbage looper moths with come to plants (such as your kale) and lay small yellow eggs on the underside of leaves. These eggs then hatch into fully hungry cabbage loopers within a few days, and so the cycle continues.
How To Get Rid Of Cabbage Loopers On Kale
Since they are bigger and more durable than most common pests, there aren’t a lot of commercial sprays or repellents made specifically for cabbage loopers. According to the University Of California, most broad-spectrum pesticides work decently on cabbage loopers!
The best way you can get rid of these pests in a small-scale garden is to remove them manually and to check for eggs regularly on the underside of your kale leaves.
Flea Beetles Are A Menace To Kale Farmers
As you can probably guess, flea beetles are yet another pest known for eating cruciferous vegetables. To be more specific, flea beetles are a jumping variety of beetle that feeds on the leaves of many plants.
Due to their jumping ability, flea beetles are a menace, as they are hard to manage and control.
Flea beetles come in a range of colors, from green to brown, to grey, to black. They are, however, characterized by being pretty small, round, and plump.
As compared to cabbage loopers and other large pests, flea beetles usually only eat through some layers of the leaf or leave smaller holes behind. According to the University Of Minnesota, these beetles can leave small pits in leaves, bore small holes, and target small seedlings first.
One important thing to note about these pests is that they don’t cause too much damage in their larval form as compared to their beetle form.
Tips For Getting Rid Of Flea Beetles On Kale
The University Of Minnesota provides a pretty in-depth list of the main solutions for flea beetles on your crops. Some of the most common include:
- Facilitating the growth of native wasp populations. Wasps hunt flea beetles. So, if you facilitate your presence in your yard, you are effectively hiring very tiny pest control experts!
- Manually removing beetles from leaves. Just like with cabbage loopers, manual removal (with thick gloves) is a sure-fire way to get rid of pests. Manual removal is also great because it gives you 100% certainty that there aren’t any pests on your plants when you are finished.
Quick tip: If you’re doubting that it’s insects causing damage to your kale, take a look at our piece on the most common animals that eat your kale for some more guidance!
Cabbage Worms Love Kale
Don’t let their name fool you. Cabbage worms are not related to cabbage loopers. Cabbage worms are another type of caterpillar that is known for specifically targeting crops such as broccoli and cabbage.
They usually bore deep into the flower heads of those plants, however, when none are present, they are more than happy to make a meal of your kale.
When going after leaves, cabbage worms bore holes or even channels through large portions of the leaf.
In their caterpillar form, cabbage worms are usually very fuzzy, with black and white stripes going along their body. In contrast, when they are in their butterfly form, they are usually a creamy white color that blends in well with plants like cauliflower.
How To Stop Cabbage Worms From Eating Your Kale
According to most sources, there aren’t many specific ways in which you can stop cabbage worms, aside from using general pesticides.
Although there isn’t a lot of research to support this claim, many gardeners swear by using powerful scents as a repellent. Cabbage worms supposedly can’t stand the smell of time, so using a thyme oil spray, or even planting thyme near your kale, could stop them in their tracks.
Whiteflies Are Known For Eating Kale
Whiteflies are a pest many gardeners have dealt with. They are so common you may have even dealt with them without even knowing it!
Whiteflies are a type of fly that can be found in most of the United States. In truth, the fly doesn’t pose a risk to your kale plants, but the eggs and larvae do.
According to North Carolina State University, whiteflies are very small flying insects that are covered in white powder. Even though they may look like small moths, they are more closely related to aphids and scales.
Just like the other flying pests we discussed, these flies find juicy leaves and lay small eggs underneath them. These eggs are usually clear or white, and turn a conspicuous yellow before hatching (which makes them easier for you to spot)!
After hatching, the hungry larvae feast on the leaves, leaving holes and channels along their way. Besides physical holes, whiteflies can also leave a sticky white residue behind, as they drain the phloem from the plant’s leaves.
How To Get Rid Of Whiteflies In Your Garden
Unlike other garden pests, whiteflies don’t have a particular taste for certain plants. This means they don’t mind hopping from weed to weed until they eventually get to your kale!
For this reason, many gardeners suggest weeding and removing vegetation surrounding your kale. If your kale already has whiteflies on it, do your best to remove them and cut off any affected leaves.
If it is too much to remove leaves from your kale plant, you can also try to spray and remove any whiteflies/eggs manually. Applying some general insecticide to the area may help as well.
Introducing whitefly natural predators, for example ladybugs, can help you get rid of these pests too!
Diamondback Moths Are A Nuisance To Kale Farmers
Diamondback moths are a special type of insect that looks more akin to cicadas or stick bugs. As a moth, diamondbacks are brown, with some white and black spotting.
Just like most of the other bugs on this list, the moths will find viable leaves (such as those on your kale plants), and they will lay eggs underneath them. After the eggs hatch, the ravenous caterpillars will happily eat away in your garden.
On top of leaving small holes of eaten leaves behind, diamondback caterpillars usually leave their cocoons behind. After going through their metamorphosis, the leftover cocoons usually are small, oval, and look like condenses spider webs.
According to the University Of Florida, diamondbacks can lay many eggs on one leaf, meaning that there may be lots of caterpillars eating away at your kale. It is also important to note that diamondback caterpillars are hairless (as compared to cabbage worms), and are a very light shade of green.
Getting Rid of Diamondback Moth Caterpillars On kale Plants
According to the Canadian Province of Manitoba, there aren’t too many ways to control diamondback moth caterpillars when they have already laid eggs.
After they have reproduced in your garden, the only real way to remove these critters is to use a specialized pesticide. Try looking for pesticides that are marketed towards moths and caterpillars.
If you are simply trying to prevent diamondbacks from coming, however, you can try to increase biodiversity in your garden, as this may increase the populations of animals that feed on them. Repellents may also work well in keeping diamondbacks away from your kale plants.
Common Caterpillars Will Eat Your Kale
Moving on to the last pest on our list, common caterpillars will eat your kale. There are some specific caterpillars such as whitefly and diamondback caterpillars, however, most species will make a quick meal of your garden.
Caterpillars widely range in what they look like, however, most common varieties are smaller than 2 inches and have some coloring that ranges in hues of black, brown, tan, green, and even yellow.
You will commonly find caterpillars crawling around the bases of your plants if they aren’t attached to the underside of leaves already.
To understand the general life cycle of most caterpillars, they usually begin as an egg laid on the underside of a leaf. After hatching, the caterpillar ravenously eats whatever organic material is surrounding it, which usually ends up being the leaf.
Over a short period, the caterpillar keeps eating and grows massively in size. Soon enough, the caterpillar forms a cocoon and goes through a metamorphosis to turn into a butterfly. Not every caterpillar will create a cocoon on the plant they eat, however, a few common ones (such as whiteflies and cabbage worms) do.
How To Protect Your Kale Against Common Caterpillars
Once again, as they are so large, hand removal is going to be your best friend in removing caterpillars. If you ensure that there are no eggs, caterpillars, or cacoons on your kale plants, you have a guarantee that they will not be eaten anytime soon.
Doing regular weekly or even daily checks is good practice at the start of spring to make sure that your plants are well protected.
On top of hand removal, some pesticides are specially formulated to fight against caterpillars. Some of the best are:
- Bonide Bacillus Thuringiensis. Sprays such as this contain an organic and natural strain of bacteria that especially attack specific caterpillars and pests. When you spray with BT, you can be sure that your garden remains organic, and that you are not harming any beneficial pests and plants.
- Dipel Dust. Products containing DT or dipel dust contain a bacterial strain known as bacillus thuringiensis. Using a product such as the Valent Dipel Pro DF formula once again allows you to control pests safely and organically!
You can learn more about all the common things that bring caterpillars into your yard in the first place if you’d like!
General Ways To Stop Kale Loving Bugs From Eating Your Kale
Whew! With all of this information about what bugs are itching to eat your kale, it can honestly be confusing to choose a method of repellent or insecticide. This is especially true if you aren’t even sure what specific pest you may be dealing with.
Many pests, such as slugs and caterpillars, have remedies that work well specifically against them, but luckily, some solutions work against all pests in general.
Remove Weeds From Around Your Kale
One thing that helps with protecting your kale plants is removing weeds that surround them. For many pests (such as the whiteflies we discussed), they get into your garden by hopping from weed to weed.
Many gardeners recommend doing weekly “weed checks,” where you actively check your crops from surrounding weeds and remove them.
Although this is a great remedy for prevention and small infestations, if your plants are already affected by pests, this won’t help too much.
Tools like this Fiskars Claw Weeder make the job quick and easy, allowing you to protect your kale with ease!
Use All-Purpose Repellents And Insecticides
Instead of using specific pesticides such as BT or DT, you can also try to use an all-purpose pesticide or repellent.
Products such as Nature-Cide All Purpose Insecticide work well against most common insects and are safe to use around the home.
On the other hand, if you want more of a repellent instead of an insecticide, you can opt for something more like this EcoRaider All Purpose Insect Control Spray. Sprays like this work by using strongly scented ingredients that most bugs can’t stand.
Use Trap Plants As A Decoy For Pests
One last solution you can use to protect your kale is growing trap plants. According to the University of Missouri, trap plants are crops you plant purposely for pests to target.
By using trap crops, you are effectively creating live bait for your pests to attack, leaving your kale pest free and happy.
Some of the most common trap crops include:
In the end, there are a ton of bugs that want to make a meal of your kale plants. Some of these culprits include:
- Diamondback moths
- Flea beetles
- Cabbage loopers
Although these are the most prolific kale-lovers, there are many more that could be snacking in your garden as we speak.
Depending on what type of insect you are dealing with, you may see different telltale signs of their presence. Some common signs of pest damage on kale include:
- Yellowing leaves
- Sticky leaves
- Wilted leaves
- Small circular holes
- Tunneling holes
- White powder on leaves
Each pest has a few specific things you can try to get rid of them. However, there are also some all-purpose solutions you can try as well. Some all-purpose methods include removing nearby weeds, using an all-purpose repellent, and growing trap plants as bait.
Overall, the best thing you can do is to monitor your plants over time, and identify if you are dealing with a pest, and what type of specific pest you are dealing with! If you can’t identify what pest is eating your kale, don’t stress, and try to use some of the general methods of repellent!
So don’t waste any more time, get outside, and protect your gorgeous kale plants!
Henneberry, T. J., & Kishaba, A. N. (1966). Cabbage loopers. In Insect colonization and mass production (pp. 461-478). Academic Press New York.
Martin, J. H., Mifsud, D., & Rapisarda, C. (2000). The whiteflies (Hemiptera: Aleyrodidae) of Europe and the Mediterranean basin. Bulletin of entomological research, 90(5), 407-448.
Godan, D. (1983). Pest slugs and snails (Vol. 445, p. 443). Berlin/Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.
Wagner, D. L. (2010). Caterpillars of Eastern North America. In Caterpillars of Eastern North America. Princeton University Press.
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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