11 Common Tulip Pests: How to Identify, Prevent, and Treat Them

Tulips are a hardy flower, but even these spring blooming beauties can succumb to certain garden pests each season. In this article, certified master gardener Liz Jaros examines the most common pests that can plague your tulip plants, as well as how to prevent them, or treat them if they've already begun attacking your tulips.

tulip pests

You’ve been peering through the front window for weeks, waiting for signs of spring. The rains have been cold but the ground is warming quickly. Finally, you spot some little green shoots. Your tulips are waking up from a long winter’s nap.

But as their strappy leaves unfurl and their buds begin to swell, you begin to notice something odd. Maybe you spot a few chew marks here and there or a sticky white web. Maybe your tulips have shredded petals or no petals at all. Or, perhaps their leaves are covered in tiny black dots.

And then it dawns on you; something is eating them. And you need to figure out what it is asap so you can shut down the buffet. Lucky for you, we think we can help. Let’s look at 11 of the most common tulip pests and discuss ways to remove/prevent them.

Aphids

Aphids on tulip
Aphids are small insects that suck sap from plants.

Yellow, distorted leaves and a sticky black substance on leaves or buds might be an indication that aphids have settled in. These small sap sucking insects can come in an assortment of colors but they are typically green and pear shaped with long legs and antennae. They can do a lot of damage and harbor disease, so it’s important to address them promptly.

Pesticides are typically less effective than natural techniques for discouraging aphids and often cause more harm than good by killing beneficial insects. You can try spraying a hard stream of water on the undersides of leaves, where aphids congregate, or coat leaves with a horticultural oil. 

Introducing predatory insects like ladybugs and lacewings to the garden can help keep the population down. Garlic, chives, nasturtium and catnip can also be effective in repelling aphids.

The best way to prevent aphids from becoming a major headache in your tulip beds is through careful monitoring. Catching the problem early is crucial to elimination.

How to Identify

Found in green, brown, red or black with pear shaped bodies and long antennae, aphids will give you distorted leaves and secrete a sticky honeydew substance that often attracts ants. Look for them on the undersides of leaves.

How to Prevent

Keep beds clean and remove weeds promptly. Monitor nearby plants for infestation.

How to Remove

A strong spray with the hose, aimed specifically at the undersides of leaves will knock them off. Horticultural oil and hand removal are also effective. Predatory insects like lady beetles and parasitic wasps can help.

Bulb flies

Bulb fly
Bulb flies lay their eggs at the base of bulbous plants, hatching larvae burrow into the bulb and begin to destroy it.

A major tulip foe, bulb flies are most dangerous in their larval stage, where they feed on bulbs below ground. Signs of bulb fly damage include yellow leaves and abnormal growth. Sometimes a ring of leaves will form where your tulip stem should be growing. If buds emerge, they often die before they have a chance to open.

Bulb flies look like stocky, hairy flies or small bumble bees. On sunny days you can see them buzzing around, feeding on your tulips’ nectar. They lay eggs in spring or summer near the base of bulb plants, and two weeks later their larvae burrow down toward the bulb and settle in.

How to Identify

Look for yellowing foliage and stunted stem or bud growth to indicate the presence of bulb flies. Adult flies will be hairy with a black to dark green body and stripes of orange, yellow, or gray. Larvae grow in a brownish case either inside the bulb or nearby.

How to Prevent

As bulb flies are often discovered in bulbs cultivated in substandard conditions, only purchase tulip bulbs from a reputable grower with a disease free guarantee. Before planting, make sure bulbs are firm and solid, without holes or soft spots. This will help discourage larvae from entering. Once tulips have emerged in spring, monitor beds for adult flies and signs of infestations.

How to Remove

Some success can be had with sticky traps and insect nets, but these will not discriminate against beneficial insects. Monitor closely to ensure that you’re not causing more harm than good. If bulb flies are discovered or suspected, remove and destroy affected bulbs and the soil that surrounds them.

Bulb mites

Bulb mites
If you notice discolored leaves or deformed flowers, you may be dealing with bulb mites.

Also an underground villain, bulb mites feed on bulbs and cause a variety of damage. Look for weakened, off color leaves and deformed flowers to indicate the possibility of this pest in your tulip beds.

Excavated bulbs infested by bulb mites will have slow moving, clearish insects that look a little bit like spiders. Roots may appear soft or decayed. Bulb mite feeding can produce injuries and soft spots that make your tulips vulnerable to rot disease, so they should be dealt with swiftly.

How to Identify

Bulb mites are shiny and creamy white in color. They are slightly larger than other mites and have 4 pairs of short brown legs. You will typically see them in slow moving clusters and they are drawn to already damaged bulbs. Tulip growth may be stunted, limited, or terminated by a bulb mite infestation. You may see them on both dormant bulbs and those that are actively growing. Bulb scales may turn red or pink.

How to Prevent

Purchase bulbs from a reputable grower and make sure they have no soft spots or damage points before planting. Look for bulbs that are ‘hot water treated’ to indicate that larval populations have been eradicated before selling and storage. Avoid injuring your bulbs at time of planting.

How to Remove

Infested bulbs should be discarded and the soil around them excavated. In healthy tulip beds, remove foliage as soon as it yellows and wilts. This will discourage bulb mites and other insects from overwintering. Predatory mites and winter flood irrigation can be employed to kill mites in mass plantings or larger settings.

Spider mites

spider mites
Removing the lowest leaves of tulips will help prevent the spread of spider mites.

Tiny, fast-moving bugs with pale bodies are usually spider mites. Under a magnifying glass, you’ll see red eyes and 6 or 8 legs, depending on age. Mottled yellow leaves that curl up and have a sticky web presence are typically an indication that mites have moved in.

Mites typically work from the ground up, so removing the lowest leaves from your tulips can help discourage an upward spread. Applying horticultural oils or soaps on the undersides can be effective as well.

Plants that are overrun with mites should be destroyed to prevent spread. Mites are attracted to dry, stressed foliage, so keep an eye out for them during times of drought.

How to Identify

If webs are present, use a magnifying glass to look for fast moving, pale colored spiders with red eyes. Leaves may appear stippled and dry. They might also turn a bronze color as the infestation advances.

How to Prevent

Keep tulips moist and keep beds free from dust. Keep an eye out for mites during times of drought. Encourage natural predators such as birds to visit your garden.

How to Remove

Swift, aggressive pruning and hand shaking will help decrease populations. Oils and soaps can be used with some success.  Introduce predatory mites if populations are out of control, and monitor nearby plants carefully for infestation. Insecticides are not recommended as they will destroy mite predators.

Caterpillars

Caterpillar feeding on yellow tulip flower
Caterpillars can do a lot of damage to your tulips as they attack both the foliage and the flowers.

Webbed or rolled leaves, chew marks, and eggs can all point toward caterpillar damage in your tulip beds. These pests will attack both foliage and blooms, and they can do a lot of damage very quickly. Hand picking and the welcoming/introduction of natural enemies are going to be your best weapons against caterpillar damage.

How to Identify

Caterpillar larvae resemble plump maggots with gray to yellow coloring. They can be found on the underside of your tulip foliage, especially those with webbed or rolled leaves. They will often shed their skin several times throughout metamorphosis.

Round to slightly misshapen bite marks on leaves and/or blooms is a caterpillar’s signature damage. Some are active just at night. Some will feed continuously for days or weeks.

How to Prevent

Allow and encourage birds, chickens, spiders, and parasitic wasps to make themselves comfortable in your tulip beds, as they are natural caterpillar predators. Insecticidal soaps can also have some preventative impact on their populations. Keep beds tidy and free from weeds to discourage nearby caterpillar inhabitation.

How to Remove

Although tedious and time consuming, hand picking is by far the most effective means of stopping caterpillars in their tracks. Insect barrier fabrics can also work, but who wants to look at tulips through an ugly screen?

Snails and slugs

snail on a pink tulip
Snails and slugs are among the most common pests of tulips, feeding on leaves and flowers.

Yellow leaves with irregular shaped holes or shredded margins typically indicate that slugs or snails have made themselves at home in your tulip patch. The presence of a slippery mucus trail helps distinguish these guys from other chewing insects.

If you suspect snail/slug damage, take a flashlight out to the garden at night and examine the undersides of your leaves. You’ll likely see something that looks like a slimy foot creeping around. Cultural control and diligent monitoring are going to be your biggest weapons against this tulip enemy.

How to Identify

Yellowing leaves with chew holes or munched margins and a slimy trail will indicate the presence of snails and slugs.

How to Prevent

Keep beds tidy and free of hiding places. Use soaker hoses to water so leaves remain dry. Copper garden elements can also deter these pests.

How to Remove

Try beer traps, hand removal, deterrent plants, hose spraying or slug killer.

Thrips

Thrips
To get rid of thrips, try intensive spraying of tulips with a hose.

Long and slender with two pairs of wings and body colors that range from transparent to black, these pests will leave little black puncture wounds on your tulips’ leaves and create a stippled, yellow pattern. They may also leave you with pale or dropping petals.

When thrips are suspected, try forceful hose spraying several times a day. Or coat leaves with neem oil. Parasitic wasps and lacewings can also help control a thrip population, so insecticides will likely cause more harm than good when it comes to thrips. Prune off infested foliage as soon as thrips are identified.

Reflective mulch that includes flashes of silver or gray can be used to deter some flying pests, and as always, choose cultivars that are known to be pest resistant. A light mesh covering can also be effective, but not exactly what you want to look at in the tulip garden.

How to Identify

Transparent to black bodies are long and slender with two sets of wings. Damage includes black puncture wounds and spotted yellow leaves.

How to Prevent

Reflective mulch, resistant plant choices, and careful monitoring will discourage infestation.

How to Remove

Neem oil, forceful hose spraying, prompt pruning and beneficial predators will help control thrips.

Squirrels

brown squirrel near tulips
If you notice holes in the garden, the remains of parts of tulip bulbs, or missing plants, then most likely you have squirrels.

If you’re finding bulbs in places where you didn’t plant them, you may have a squirrel problem. These furry nuisances can do a great deal of damage before your tulips have even had a chance to grow. Look for holes in your beds and pieces of bulb here and there, particularly in fall.

A squirrel typically forages within 75 feet of its home, so they tend to build burrows and nests near homes with bird feeders and seed/nut sources. Eliminating these opportunities from your yard will encourage them to move elsewhere, but it will also send the birds packing.

Fumigation, live trapping, shooting, and baiting can also be done to address extreme squirrel infestations, but nothing is likely to shut down the party completely. Pepper spray, mint plantings, loud noises, and bright lights may have some deterrent effect.

How to Identify

Holes in the garden, scattered bulb parts, long ground burrows, and missing plants are all signs of squirrel presence.

How to Prevent

Look for old burrows and destroy them completely to prevent new squirrels from moving in. Eliminate bird feeders and water sources from your yard. Motion lights, loud noises and sprinkler systems are also unfriendly to squirrels.

How to Remove

Scare them away with loud noises and natural predators like dogs and cats. Baiting, trapping, and fumigation strategies can be employed if your squirrel problem is severe.

Deer

Deer eating tulips
Deer usually feed on tulips late in the evening or early in the morning.

There are many deer resistant perennial plants, but tulips are not one of t hem. If your tulips have ragged leaves, broken stems, or shredded petals, look for deer in your yard. They tend to feed late in the evening or early in the morning, so this is probably the best time to catch them in the act.

Tulips typically grow somewhere between 1 and 2 feet tall, which is right in a deer’s browsing line, and they are brightly colored, which makes them attractive. Habitat management is usually the best way to combat deer. Perimeter fencing at a height of 6 feet tall will usually do the trick, but is not always practical or possible.

You can also use bubble wrap, stinky shoes, or human hair as deer deterrents, but some of these tactics can be more unpleasant than chewed leaves. You can also cover your plants each night with a tarp or hard container, but again, you’ll need to weigh the results against your commitment and sanity.

How to Identify

Look for shredded or rough-chewed leaves and blooms. Deer have no upper teeth and must twist and pull the plant parts they’re eating. Watch for deer late at night and early morning (when they typically feed) to confirm your suspicions that they are doing the damage.

How to Prevent

Property fencing and garden fencing are your biggest weapons against deer.

How to Remove

Keep an eye out for deer late at night and early morning. Shoo them away with loud noises and/or bright lights. They might move on to someone else’s garden if feeding in yours becomes more trouble than it’s worth.

Rabbits

rabbit in tulip meadow
Signs of rabbits in your garden are broken stems and chewing marks between 2 inches to 1 foot above the ground.

If stem breakage and chew marks fall somewhere between 2 inches and 1 foot above ground, rabbits might be to blame. Look for clean, 45 degree cuts in your tulips’ stems as well as ¼ inch pellets in the vicinity.

As rabbits typically graze near an escape cover, keep your yard free of clutter and seal off access points to sheds, garages and porches. Keep bird feeders away from tulip beds and consider some kind of mesh fencing if rabbits are doing major damage.

Remember that fences need to be partially buried and at least 18” tall if they are to be effective at rabbit prevention. Some success might also be had using strong odors like garlic, ammonia, and cayenne pepper to turn them away.

How to Identify

Look for clean stem breakage at 45 angles somewhere between 2 inches and 1 foot above ground and watch for pellets.

How to Prevent

Reduce junk and clutter in the yard, so rabbits will have few hiding places. Let dogs and cats roam freely to encourage rabbits to graze elsewhere. Install sub-grade mesh fencing to keep them out.

How to Remove

Trapping and relocation can be used to remove rabbits from your property if certain conditions are met. Check with your county for rules and regulations.

Voles

Vole
Install mesh or wire fencing to physically protect your tulips from voles.

A little closer to the ground, if you notice gnaw marks on your tulips’ roots or stems and tiny burrows in your mulch, you might be dealing with voles. These compact rodents have gray to brown fur, short bushy tails and hidden ears. They measure between 5 and 8 inches long from nose to tail.

Heavy vegetation is attractive to voles for protection and shelter, so keep your tulip bed and adjacent gardens as lightly dressed as possible if you suspect voles have moved in. Do not keep grass or leaves piled nearby, and be diligent with weeding.

Mesh or wire fencing buried at least 6 inches below ground level can help to physically exclude voles from your tulips. And if you feel like the population is out of control, baits and traps can be used effectively to reduce their numbers.

How to Identify

Chew marks near your tulips’ roots or stems and slow flower production are symptoms of vole damage. Look for gray to brown rodents with short bushy tails and/or raised burrows in the soil or mulch.

How to Prevent

Keep leaf and grass piles as well as dense groundcover patches away from tulip beds. Bury mesh fencing 6-8 inches below grade to block voles out.

How to Remove

Baits and traps as well as predatory animals like cats and hawks can help address small populations.

Final Thoughts

You’re never going to completely eliminate bugs and critters from your garden. They are all a part of the ecosystem and most play a role in sustaining it. But inevitably, things will get off balance from time to time and you’ll have to step in.

When this happens, spend some time researching the source of the problem and plotting your best course of action. Put your disappointment aside and put your new knowledge in your gardener’s tool bucket. You’re now smarter, more experienced, and better equipped for future tulip growing success.

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