Introduction: How to Hunt Vine Borers

About: Building design/consulting in Vancouver, WA. Resource based problem solver... in other words, I always take a minute to look in construction dumpsters :) ---the way some have to workout everyday... i have to …

Vine bores can very quickly devastate your garden. They target squash plants and take destroy them from the ground up.

Early Signs. I watched a few plants start to show yellow leaves. It too only 4 or 5 days but in that time the vine mores had started to bread down the stems of my spaghetti and green long neck squash.

My Approach. I hunt the vine borers with a precision approach using mainly a dental hook to fish out the bores. In this instructable I walk through the different stem types and how to cause minimal damage while removing these bugs.

Squash Plants. Fortunately squash plants are extremely resilient. They have sturdy stems that send water and nutrients through fibers similar to celery. Even if several of the fibers are broken by the bores nutrients can move between channels at nodes. At each node the plant can also send off new roots.

What's included:

  • Vine Borer: Know Your Target
  • Tools Kit
  • Partnering with Chickens
  • Dissecting a Stem
  • Horizontal Stems
  • Vertical Stems
  • Scratch + Fishing Method
  • Patching + Spraying

My Gardens

  • Home Garden - divided into three beds. one bed has bores in every plant. the others have scattered damange. at home I provide a diluted miracle grow solution to tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and peppers to try to boost production
  • Community Garden Plot - 14 plants that are all crawling with bores. this is my organic garden where I use no chemicals
  • Abandoned HS 'Plot' - a location not far from where I live where I was able to guerrilla plant several squash plants. Also with bores but only shows minor damage

Step 1: Vine Borer: Know Your Target

The Red Moth. What kills me is that I spotted one of these moths and thought at first it was a type of wasp. What a shame. The moth itself is slow and docile. I've since fed two of them to the chickens and squished a few others around town.

Laying Eggs. The eggs are laid at the base of the plant. That said, they really can be laid anywhere on squash. If the base is inaccessible... some people suggest wrapping in foil for the first 12". If that is the case they will just lay past the foil.

Protecting. The only way to really protect is to use bug netting. The netting should be used until the first female flowers blossom and pollinators are needed. From there it's necessary to watch for signs of eggs and the bores themselves.

Dense Planting. To further protect it is useful to have a dense layer of foliage. Picture the leaves acting like a phalanx. They shield the roots from these moths . It's also useful to have cucumbers planted closely. The moths don't like the prickly leaves of the cucumber plant. Wherever I have cucumbers near my squash my plants are safe.

Oil Spray. I am not a true organic gardener. Certainly vegetable plants in my garden receive a boost of diluted miracle grow. That said, I avoid toxic chemicals. Neem Oil is my go to. It can be diluted down to 1% and still be highly effective against fungus and insects.

Pesticide Dust. Next season I'll be using a Carbaryl based dust to protect around the base of my plants. The chemical is not absorbed by plant tissues and I understand it to be safe for vegetables. Here's a 1lb container of Carbaryl 5%.

Step 2: Tool Kit

My tools are at home on my garden shelf. I typically walk around with the small surgical scissors but will double back for the dental pick at the first sign of vine bores (next step).

Weapon of Choice - the dental pick really is perfect for each method I share of removing the bores. I was able to pull each bore in under a minute. I would have taken considerably longer with a needle or piece of wire... though these are also worth using.

Tool Kit

  • Surgical Scissors - simple clean scissors with needle nose
  • Forceps - useful to grab out the bores or just grab insects for the chickens
  • Dental Pick - an elegant tool for fishing out the vine bores (more to come)
  • Neem Oil in Spray Bottle - neem oil can be diluted down to 1%

Note on Stronger Chemicals. The best option for going non-organic is to use a BT pesticide. Bacillus Thuricide is the chemical for caterpillars and moths. It can be sprayed on leaves or the stems themselves. Next year I will be tempted to have this in a spray bottle during the 2nd and 3rd weeks of July. That's when the moths are most active here in SE Minnesota.

Step 3: Partnering With Chickens

Very helpful to have a few ladies around to help filter through any debris. They also are happy to have any scraps. People online talk about burning their plants... That may be a good option but you're not going to eliminate the threat of a returning moth next year.

Step 4: Dissecting a Stem

The photos show how a vine bore creates tunnels through the stem. This plant was in a shaded spot and not likely to produce fruit.

What you'll see: There its a distinct sawdust mush that the bores leave behind
What you'll smell: The excrement from the bores is not pleasant but it is surprisingly similar a crawfish boil scraps that have sat in the sun a bit too long. ---perhaps why the chickens are so excited

Step 5: Horizontal Stems

Here's an example of a green long neck zucchini plant. The vine borers have entered the stem all along the base of this horizontal section.

  1. Foliage - cut back leaves + stems to expose the damaged section
  2. Wounds - clear debris... the sawdust excrement of the borers
  3. Fishing - use the dental pick to reach into all the open wounds. I use the straight and curved picks. The straight is especially useful to reach up through the stem.
  4. Checking - at each node it's worth applying pressure to check for softness. If the node is soft the vine borer has been present. Fish each soft node.
  5. Spray - after removing any borers you'll want to apply a few sprays to keep the moths from returning and laying new eggs.

Note that these horizontal sections are so fat you won't see any splitting... just rot.

Step 6: Vertical Stems

The approach to vertical stems is similar to horizontal. These vines are small enough that as the borer advances it will split the stem. At each split you want to fish for the borer. The approach is to stat 1cm or 1/2in in front of the most advanced split. The bores move away from the roots. Slide the hook through the plant to fish out the borer.

Step 7: Scratch Method

Using the 'scratch method' is the best way to remove bores from narrow vines. Once a section is damaged it won't feed the plant. Staying in line with the damage fibers you can scratch in line with the advancing borer. Know that some eggs are laid a few feet from the base. Especially on smaller plants so there is a good chance the bares are still under 1cm or 1/2in.

Step 8: Scratch Method (extended)

A clear example of how to slide the pick between fibers to expose a vine borer.

Step 9: Scratch Method (vertical)

The 'stretch marks' along a vine are a clear sign of vine borers. Start at the furthest one from the roots. 98% of the time they move away from the roots. I've found a few examples of the opposite but it's rare.

Step 10: Fishing Method

A few shots are provided to show how I use the dental pick to fish out the vine borer.

Step 11: Fishing Method (extended)

At each node their is an opportunity to find a vine borer. They don't move fast but they typically retreat to the nodes.

Step 12: Large Nodes

Forceps are useful at large nodes where you can actually reach in and pull out whole vine borers.

Step 13: Vine Splits

here are a few shots of a recent split and a very exposed vine borer.

Step 14: From Vine to Coop

Here's how I use the scratch method and bring the invader back to the ladies.

Step 15: Dissecting (extended)

A few additional shots showing the tunnels. Kiki (our chicken) is right in there looking for the vine borer.

Step 16: Squash Fruit

Fortunately the vines are very resilient. I mention the fiber structure a few times. The are tough for supplying fruit and also for supporting the heavy spaghetti squash. I used onion bags to hold the squash but I've learned it's not necessary.

Varieties. I planted seeds from store bought produce. With squash the hybrids are really anyone's guess. These spaghetti squash varieties are excellent!

Step 17: Thanks!

Gross Photos. Sorry that this post was more than a little gross. The vine bores can be devastating and I hope you've found this helpful is you are dealing with these

Pick Method. Super useful and something that you confidently/actively do to save your plants. Know that I find the dental pick to be the most 'creatively useful' tool I know. It's also possible to use wire, a paperclip or a needle.

Clearly I've gotten into going after the pests. I hope this helps you feel confident hunting these invaders and perhaps saving a few plants... or at least getting a few fruits to ripen.

Thanks - Jeff

Here are a few others from my garden:

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