When a Worm Isn’t a Worm at All: “Pot Worms” – A Special Kind of Gross.

An Entomologist by training, it generally takes a lot to gross me out. (I’m constantly suppressing shrieks of “It’s adorable!” when growers show me aphids).  But now that it’s dark and wet in the greenhouse, there’s been a sudden appearance of a rather unlovable pest some growers have been referring to as “Pot Worm”.

Not an actual worm at all, this pest is a lover of over-watering and fungal production. Read on to find out what it REALLY is, and how to control it.

Appearance:

Appearing over the last few weeks in crops like Kolanchoe and Christmas Cactus, these worm-like pests had a few distinct characteristics making them unlike anything else in the greenhouse:

  • Long, dark brown/black larvae inhabiting the top layer of media
  • “Slime trails” on the surface of the media
  • Balls of loose webbing, either near the pot edge, or affixed to the underside of lower leaves

A quick inspection under the microscope revealed they definitely weren’t related to earth worms.  They were fly maggots; most likely a species of fungus gnat or midge.

larva3_labelled

Some characteristics visible with a dissecting scope that indicate this was a fly larvae, and not another pest like a worm or a nematode.

The balls of webbing were actually loosely protecting larvae that were pupating.  Here’s what the pupae look like:

Presentation1

Left: fly pupae and webbing on the underside of a leaf.  Right: close up of the fly pupa.

Identification:

The National Identification Service in Ottawa confirmed that samples were indeed a type of fungus gnat.  The “normal” fungus gnats we regularly see in the greenhouse  are Dark-Winged Fungus gnats, in the family Sciaridae.  The ones we’re suddenly seeing are in a closely related family, Mycetophilidae, which literally translates to “fungus-loving” (finally, my high school Latin comes in handy!!!).  The actual species identified was Sclophila mississippiensis.

I’m guessing that no one wants to say “Mycetophilidae” on the regular, and these flies don’t have an established common name, so I’ve decided to call these guys “Pot Gnats”. (Oddly, neither of the growers involved wanted me to name it after them…)

Below is a picture of the adults side by side.  They are fairly very similar looking, so it’s  probably hard to distinguish Dark Winged Fungus Gnats from Pot Gnats when stuck to sticky cards.  Identification is therefore best determined by signs on the soil media.

sciaridae vs mycetophilidae

Left: A Dark Winged fungus gnat (in the family Sciaridae); this species is common in the greenhouse.  Note the more mosquito-like appearance and the longer antennae.  Right: a Mycetophilid fungus gnat (or “Pot Gnat”) freshly emerged from potting media in Niagara, Ontario.  The body appears more robust and hump-shaped, with shorter antennae. This type of gnat is far less common in Ontario greenhouses.

 Damage:

 

slime trail mycetophilid_labelled

Damage from Mycetophilid fungus gnats, or Pot Gnats, appears to be aesthetic only.

The good news here is that this type of fungus gnat is actually less damaging that dark-winged fungus gnats.  Mycetophilids are only known to eat the fruiting bodies and spores of fungi or decaying organic matter. They are NOT known to burrow into or eat plant roots.  Ultimately, their damage is likely purely aesthetic.

However, it is unknown at this time if these flies can transmit plant pathogens.  (Dark-Winged Fungus Gnats are known vectors of diseases like Fusarium and black root rot; see this article), so controlling their spread is still important.  Plus, they are yucky.

Treatment:

The easiest form of treatment for these guys seems to just to watch your watering; at this time of year, with the cloud cover and lower temperatures, it can be easy to over water.  This promotes the production of fungi, mosses and algae that attract pests like fungus gnats, shoreflies, and even high populations of collembola (springtails) or potato bugs.  It’s also likely to encourage plant diseases like pythium.

Other than that, we’re guessing the control of Mycetophilid fungus gnats is pretty much the same as dark-winged fungus gnats.  Options include:

  • Insect growth regulators like Dimilin (diflubenzeron) or Citation (cyromazine) that are fairly safe to use in conjunction with biocontrol programs
  • Predators like Hypoaspis mites or the rove beetle Atheta (Dalotia) coriaria
  • The use of entomopathogenic nematodes like S. feltiae or S. carpocapsae.  Both like to inhabit the top 0-3 inches of soil, where Pot Gnat likes to hang out, but S. feltiae may be better this time of year as it performs better in cooler temperatures.

Conclusions:

Overall, this “novel” pest is likely not one to be terribly concerned about, but it’s presence does point to issues such as over-watering or overly humid conditions in the greenhouse.

 

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