Found in greenhouses, home gardens and landscaped areas across the country, leafminers are the larval (maggot) stage of an insect family that feeds between the upper and lower surfaces of leaves. On heavily infested plants it is not uncommon to find 6 or more maggots per leaf. Although damage can restrict plant growth, resulting in reduced yields and loss of vigor, healthy plants can tolerate considerable injury. Host plants include beans, blackberries, cabbage, lettuce, peppers, and a variety of ornamental flowers, trees and shrubs.
Adults (1/10 inch long) are often black to gray flies with yellow stripes and clear wings. They are similar in appearance to small, hunched-back house flies and lay their eggs on the undersides of leaves. Larvae are worm-like maggots (1/3 inch) which are often pale yellow or green in color. They create winding tunnels that are clear, except for the trail of black fecal material (frass) left behind as they feed.
Note: In some cases, pathogenic fungi and bacteria may enter old mines left from eradicated insects. This can cause leaves to turn yellow and drop.
Mature larvae overwinter in the soil under host plants. As temperatures warm in the spring larvae pass to the pupal stage and appear as young adults in late April. Mated females use their needle-like ovipositor to lay up to 250 eggs just under the surface of the leaf epidermis. Deposited eggs may appear as small raised spots on the leaf. Within 10 days hatching larvae tunnel through the mid-leaf tissue, feeding as they go and leaving tell-tale wavy lines that are visible on the surface. Larvae mature in 2-3 weeks, and when ready to pupate, leave the leaf and drop to the soil. Once on the ground, they dig 1-2 inches into the soil and pupate. Adults emerge within 15 days as adult flies. There are several generations per year.
Various types of leafminers attack various kinds of plants. They’re found on broadleaf trees, including elm, aspen, hawthorn, and poplar as well as shrubs and bushes, including lilacs. Damage can be limited in initial stages of infestations but increase as leafminer numbers multiply, and even minor infestations, while not killing a plant, will cripple its hardiness. Leafminers are a major cause of poor harvest numbers in home gardens as they weaken individual vegetable plants. They’re especially fond of spinach leaves and their tunneling severely decreases the attractiveness and value of the crop.