What Is Eating My Bougainvillea Leaves?

Are you seeing damage on your bougainvillea leaves? Like something’s been chomping and munching away? I’m not talking little nibbles here and there but some serious feasting. I’ll tell and show you what it might be so you can identify the pest and take action.

I had 2 bougainvilleas in my Santa Barbara garden and 4 here in Tucson. I’ve learned a lot about them from working at a nursery but mostly by hands-on experience. They’re relatively easy to maintain except for the pruning which I happen to enjoy (yes, it’s true!) and you can’t beat them for an all-out show of color.

There are a few pests which attack them that I’ve skimmed over in previous bougainvillea posts and videos – so it’s time for more details.

Something eating my bougainvillea leaves! Hopefully, this will help:

3 Possible Pests Are the Culprits

Leaf Cutter Bee

This 1 is very easy to identify because you’ll see large even chomps, like half-moons, taken out of the sides of the foliage. You rarely see the leafcutter bee itself because it does its thing & then is gone. I never saw leafcutter bees in Santa Barbara but I did have them on 1 of my bougies in the spring. Nothing too bad but enough for me to notice. It’s now the very end of August & low & behold, I found 1 leaf with the evidence so I could show you.

What you should do as treatment: Nothing. These bees are beneficial pollinators & we need them. The leaves will grow back & by the way, they can’t be bothered with us humans so you don’t have to worry about being stung.

a bougainvillea leaf with a half round chunk taken out of it Leaf cutter bee damage

Evidence of leaf cutter bees. My how neatly they eat!

The next 2 pests are caterpillars which mean they eat like crazy. There are so many different types of caterpillars & they’re all hungry critters. The damage done by caterpillars can vary a bit but the treatment is generally the same.

All caterpillars (not only this one) eat & poop like crazy so the little black specks you’ll see on the leaves is their frass.  And yes, caterpillar excrement has it’s own word.

Head’s up: Those black droppings are a sign caterpillars are in the house!

These are the 2 which I have seen on my bougainvilleas & have experience with:

Leaftier Caterpillar

I didn’t see these on my bougies in Santa Barbara either. They protect by getting on the under the leaves, rolling themselves up & then closing the leaves with silk threads. After the caterpillars have gone, you can unroll a leaf & still see evidence of the threads on the undersides. The damage to the plant is mainly at the end of the stems, as far as I can see anyway.

leaf tier caterpillar eating my bougainvillea leaves the caterpillar is transparent and the leaves are bright green

The leaftier caterpillar. You can see the webbing, like threads of silk, on the leaf behind the caterpillar which I unrolled.

chewed leaves on my bougainvillea caused by the leaftier caterpillar

Here’s the damage done to the ends of the stems by the leaftier. You can see how 1 of the leaves is rolled up.

Bougainvillea Looper

These are the most common chewing pests which attack bougainvilleas that I know of. My Bougainvillea glabra had them big time in Santa Barbara every year come late July. They’re inch worms & can be brown to green to yellow. The loopers are hard to spot because they hang out under the leaves & do their feeding at night.

To me, they damage they do a lot more damage then the leaftier. The leaves get chewed extensively, both old & new, & can ultimately look like thin lace or be gone all together. I’ve never seen the looper cause leaf curl – please let us know otherwise if you have.

a bougainvillea looper caterpillar which chews bougainvillea

Here’s what the bougainvillea looper looks like; basically a small green inchworm. In the video, you can see the damage done to my mint by the cabbage looper. It looks similar to the damage this looper does.

Treatment For These Caterpillars on Your Bougainvillea Leaves

Head’s up: These pests don’t do any harm to or endanger the health of an established plant. All the damage is cosmetic. Bougainvilleas shed & regrow foliage a couple of times a year so you’ll see new leaves appear. On the other hand, a young plant could be susceptible to a bad infestation.

Here are your three options for treating these bougainvillea pests:

1.) Nothing

My bougainvilleas are well established & the damage doesn’t bother me, with either caterpillar. They hatch into moths, fly away & then I won’t see them again for a year. That being said, I will eventually prune off the damage done by the leaftiers. I would let the loopers be because my glabra was so full & dense it was hard to see unless I got close up.Remove them by hand.

2.) Remove the Pests by Hand

This is much easier to do with the leaftier as you can find them covered in silk inside the rolled up leaves during the day. The looper is much harder to find so this would be extremely labor intensive.

If you choose to control them with a spray, my word of advise would be to do it early on before the infestation gets worse. Reapply if the caterpillars return. Be sure to spray where the caterpillars to make it effective. Even though both of these sprays are reported to be non-harmful to beneficial insects, please be sure to spray around dusk when they aren’t as active.

3.) Spray the Leaves

BT is a naturally occurring bacteria which makes the caterpillars sick & ultimately causes them to die. It’s considered to be a natural pesticide. When I worked at a nursery, this is what we always recommended to control caterpillars. The other product would be neem oil. It’s reported to control caterpillars though I have no experience with this. Please let us know if you have.

Head’s up: caterpillars are treated differently so insecticidal soap & horticultural oil wouldn’t be effective at all – don’t waste your time.

I’ve noticed that these pests don’t seem to attack the flowers and that’s a very good thing. We want that explosion of color that only bougainvillea leaves can provide! By the way, none of my other plants have been attacked by these pests. Whether you choose to treat or not, do a little more research to see what’s best for you, the plant and the environment.

Happy gardening,

Signed by Nell Foster


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  1. Hi Nell,
    Great information. I have beautiful white bougainvilleas in my south Florida yard. I have been told, the white variety has a bigger issue with caterpillars than other colors. Is this something you have seen?


  2. Thank you Roxane. I haven’t heard that about the white bougainvilleas. My Rainbow Gold Bougainvillea got good & chewed last season but came back beautifully. My Barbara Karst is much less attacked. Could be because it gets more hot sun. Nell

  3. Live in Sun City AZ and my bush is 6 years old. Something is eating the branches. Looks like they have been cut. It only happens over night.

  4. Hi Nell! I recently started outdoor gardening and have loved reading your posts. I read up on bougainvilleas before planting mine and followed your advice to keep it in the nursery pot. I think I have a rosenka (it wasn’t labeled). The blooms have all fallen off and the leaves are all curled. I noticed in the top photo on this post you have something that looks similar, same colors and curled leaves, though my leaves are more curled. I have no idea what I’m doing wrong or how to get my bougie looking healthier. The leaves are green and not dry, and I haven’t noticed any particular pests, though we have lots of spiders and they have made their ways into some of the leaf curls. I don’t see signs of a nutrient deficiency, but maybe I don’t know how to spot it. I’ve fed it orchid food 30-10-10 a couple of times in the past 6 weeks. Thank you for putting this wonderful and informative blog together!

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