How to Get Rid of Chinch Bugs in Your Lawn

Chinch Bug on plant

In a matter of days, a large infestation of chinch bugs can march through your lawn and leave nothing behind. What’s a homeowner to do? Thankfully, there are ways to prevent and get rid of damaging chinch bugs in your lawn. We have the knowledge you need on what these pests are and how to effectively disrupt their lifecycle in your lawn.

In this article, we’ll cover:

What are chinch bugs?

Chinch bugs are insects that have become a major lawn pest for homeowners across the country. As true bugs, chinch bugs have mouth parts that suck their food (aka the liquids in your grass) through a proboscis, which is a straw-like appendage at the front of their head.

How to identify chinch bug damage

Chinch bug damage may look something like this:

  • The lawn starts to yellow but may quickly turn brown or straw-colored.
  • Your attempts to water seem to have no effect as brown, dead grass areas continue to expand rapidly into the entire lawn.
  • Infestations start in full sun or warm areas of your lawn, often next to pavement, driveways, or sidewalks that radiate heat to the adjacent grass.

To know for sure, you’ll need to see the bugs for yourself. An easy way to identify chinch bugs in your lawn is to do a drench test. Sometimes called the “coffee can test” or “flotation method,” this is a simple test that any homeowner can do:

  1. Choose a section of grass that is on the edge of healthy grass and brown turf. (Once chinch bugs eat one section of lawn, they keep pressing outward to find new grass to eat and are most likely to be on the edge of brown and green grass.)
  1. Cut both ends off of a large tin coffee can or another cylinder container. Press the can into the soil so that it stands on its own, about 2-3 inches. A trowel or small shovel may help with this.
  1. Use your garden hose or a large bucket of water and fill the container with water. Wait 5 minutes and count the number of chinch bugs that appear. Keep the water level above the soil surface for the duration of the test.
  1. If you don’t see any bugs in the first section of lawn, try a few other sections along the perimeter of the dead/living grass. 
  1. If you count 15-25 bugs per square foot, it’s a good idea to treat this chinch bug problem. 

How to get rid of chinch bugs in your lawn

Chinch bug infestations need to be addressed ASAP once you start to see the damage. Here are the steps to take to get rid of chinch bugs in your lawn.

1. Get a positive ID on your bug

Unless you’re a professional entomologist, you might need help to identify your bug. Ask your local Cooperative Extension Office to help. Or, ask if your state has a plant-pest diagnostic lab that will diagnose garden pests.

2. Start with good lawn care

Before you reach for a chemical, make sure you are giving your lawn the care it needs to thrive. Thatch is a particular concern since chinch bugs thrive in heavy thatch. If you have too much thatch, chemical products will be less effective and the grass won’t get the water it needs to be healthy. 

Water your lawn once per week (or two to three times per week in sandy soils). This will help the roots to grow deep, which strengthens the grass overall. Finally, don’t forget to fertilize. Start to fertilize warm-season grasses in late spring and early summer, and start your cool-season fertilization program in the fall.

Whether or not you plan to use chemicals, good lawn care will strengthen your grass against whatever insects come your way. (See How to prevent chinch bugs in your lawn for more details.)

3. Natural methods

If you prefer alternatives to synthetic chemicals, consider these tips:

  • Use natural products

For a more natural approach, consider insecticidal soaps or diatomaceous earth (DE). Look for the OMRI label (Organic Materials Review Institute) if you prefer an insecticidal soap that is certified organic. 

(Note: Although the link above cites these as “chemical methods,” there are many insecticidal soaps and DE products that are OMRI certified.

  • Use power tools to remove chinch bugs from your lawn

Love your leaf blower or woodworking vacuum? Use these tools to suck up chinch bugs in small infestations and remove them from your lawn. (This is also a handy method to test for the presence of chinch bugs if you don’t want to do the drench test.)

4. Chemical applications

If you’ve had a problem with chinch bugs in the past, consider a preventive application once the first generation of nymphs starts to emerge in spring. If you have a new outbreak and catch it early, consider targeted spraying to knock down the existing population. 

In extreme cases, professional pest and lawn companies might use a contact insecticide to knock down existing pests and a systemic insecticide for longer-term control. 

If you’re looking to DIY, here are a few ingredients to look for:

  • Carbaryl
  • Pyrethroids, including permethrin, lambda-cyhalothrin, cyfluthrin, and bifenthrin

Caution: You may want to speak with a local expert before you decide to apply chemicals to your lawn. Chemicals used to control chinch bugs may pose hazards to beneficial insects, which help keep chinch bug populations in check, and can harm humans, pets, or the environment if improperly applied. 

How to prevent chinch bugs in your lawn

Good lawn care prevents and fortifies against a thousand lawn care ills. Consider these lawn care practices to strengthen your lawn against chinch bugs or whatever the summer may bring.

Practice good lawn care

As with most other grass stresses, having a healthy lawn can help your grass resist and endure a certain level of chinch bug feeding.

Irrigate: Grass that is drought-stressed is more likely to be eaten by chinch bugs. Water the grass with 1 – 1 ½ inches of water once per week in most soils. Water sandy soils two to three times per week with the same amount of water, since sandy soils don’t hold water well.

Also, guard against over-watering. Soils that are too wet don’t have the oxygen they need to maintain a healthy microbial environment that breaks down thatch.

Mow: Set your mower at the proper height to create strong roots and fortify the whole plant against stresses, such as insects. Mow taller in the shade and during the hottest months. This encourages the grass to grow deeper roots and helps shade the soil, which holds in water at the soil level.

Grass typeMowing height
Bermudagrass1-2 inches (non-hybrid varieties)
Buffalograss2-4 inches, depending on how often you mow
Fine fescue1.5-3 inches
Kentucky bluegrass2-3 inches
Perennial ryegrass2-3 inches
St. Augustinegrass2.5-3 inches for dwarf cultivars; 3-4 inches for standard cultivars
Tall fescue2-4 inches
Zoysiagrass1-2.5 inches

If you haven’t sharpened your lawn mower blade in a while, now is a good time. Grass blades that are torn due to a dull mower blade become stressed and dehydrated. Sharp blades leave a clean cut that heals quickly.

Fertilize: Too much fertilizer can leave your turf more susceptible to chinch bugs and cause faster thatch buildup, as well. Instead of heavy, infrequent fertilizer applications, follow this advice instead:

  • Use slow-release fertilizer 
  • Break up your fertilizer applications  

If you have cool-season grass, fall is the best time to fertilize the lawn. Fertilizing in the fall helps strengthen the grass for the upcoming winter and helps it to start strong in the spring.

For warm-season lawns, late spring or early summer, right after green-up, is the best time to start your fertilizer applications for the year.

Here are the recommended fertilizer guidelines for each grass type:

Grass typeFertilizer (in pounds nitrogen/1,000 square feet/year)
Bermudagrass1-4.5  pounds 
Buffalograss0.5-2 pounds
Fine fescue1-2 pounds
Kentucky bluegrass1-5 pounds
Perennial ryegrass1-5 pounds
St. Augustinegrass2-6 pounds
Tall fescue1-3.5 pounds
Zoysiagrass0.5-2.5 pounds
illustration explaining thatch on grass

Dethatch: Thatch is a layer of decomposing debris (stems, roots, and other plant matter) that sits between the grass and the soil. A little bit of thatch can be helpful, but anything over about one-half inch acts like a sponge and prevents air, water, and fertilizer from reaching the soil. 

If you have these grasses, watch out for thick thatch: 

  • Bermuda
  • Kentucky bluegrass 
  • St. Augustine 
  • Zoysia

In general, over a one-half inch of thatch can lead to lawn diseases, such as fungus, and pest issues, including chinch bug problems. Rent a dethatcher or buy an inexpensive model to clear out some of this undecomposed debris on top of your lawn.

Use resistant grasses

Replace dead turfgrass with chinch bug-resistant cultivars. Look for endophyte-enhanced fine fescue, tall fescue, or perennial ryegrass and overseed cool-season lawns with this seed. (There are no endophyte-enhanced varieties of Kentucky bluegrass.) 

For St. Augustine lawns, the cultivar “Captiva” is the only cultivar that can deter the southern chinch bug. However, because chinch bugs adapt, even resistant grasses can lose their effectiveness over time. Use a multi-faceted, preventive approach for the best long-term control.

Overseed with different grass types

You may also consider overseeding with a different grass type, especially in cool-season lawns. For example, if you have a 100% Kentucky bluegrass lawn, overseed with endophyte-enhanced perennial ryegrass and fine fescue to increase your lawn’s genetic diversity and its resistance to diseases and insect damage.

Facts about chinch bugs

Here are a few facts about chinch bugs and their life cycle in your lawn.

Life cycle

Chinch bugs have three life stages: 

  • Egg 
  • Nymph (the immature stage) 
  • Adult

There are five nymphal stages (called instars or molts) before the chinch bug reaches adulthood.

Chinch bugs overwinter in grass or crop fields and emerge again in the spring when temps reach about 70 degrees Fahrenheit (temp may vary by species). At this time, you may see them crawling across paved areas and onto the sides of buildings. 

The adults feed, mate, lay eggs, and produce two or more generations per season, usually late spring through fall. In warm areas of the country, chinch bugs may emerge earlier and last later into fall before they seek a site to overwinter.

Feeding behavior

Unlike caterpillars, chinch bugs don’t chew — they suck. Chinch bugs have piercing  mouthparts that allow them to suck juices from the grass just as you suck your favorite liquids through a straw. 

As if this weren’t enough to damage your prized turf, chinch bugs up the ante: While they suck juices from your grass, they also release an anticoagulant that blocks water and nutrients from moving into the root system of the plant. This can quickly cause the plant to die and is one reason that large infestations can cause the lawn to turn from yellow to brown to dead very fast.

Different chinch bug species prefer different grasses. Here’s a sampling of a few chinch bug species and the grasses they commonly eat:

Hairy chinch bug [Blissus leucopterus hirtus (Montandon)]

  • Bentgrass
  • Fescues
  • Kentucky bluegrass
  • Perennial ryegrass
  • Zoysiagrass

Common chinch bug [Blissus leucopterus leucopterus (Say)]

  • Bermudagrass
  • Crabgrass
  • Fescues
  • Kentucky bluegrass
  • Perennial ryegrass
  • Zoysiagrass

Southern chinch bug [Blissus insularis (Barber)]

  • St. Augustinegrass (primarily)

Western chinch bug (Blissus occiduus Barber)

The western chinch bug is primarily a pest of these two grass types:

  • Buffalograss
  • Zoysiagrass

Note: Chinch bug populations change over time and can become significant pests of additional grasses. weeds, and crops in future years.

Size and appearance

Chinch bugs vary slightly in size and appearance depending on their species. However, adult chinch bugs are just under one-quarter of an inch long and most have dark or black bodies with partially or mostly white wings. Most larvae have a characteristic white band across the back of the abdomen.

If chinch bugs or any other bugs are marching across your lawn, contact one of our Lawn Love lawn care pros. They know how to halt advancing armies of pests and help your lawn take back the high ground. 

Main photo credit: Christina Butler | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Sarah Bahr

Sarah is a writer who has previously worked in the lawn care industry. In her spare time, she likes to garden, raise chickens, and mow the grass with her battery-powered lawn mower.