Cucurbit Bacterial Wilt

Need to know:

  • The symptoms vary but typically leaves will turn a dull green and progressive wilting of lateral leaves occurs.
  • At home diagnostic techniques can be useful to identify the disease.
  • Cucurbit bacterial wilt is transferred from plant to plant through striped and spotted cucumber beetles.
  • Management is dependent upon control of the cucumber beetle.
Bacterial wilt symptoms
Bacterial wilt symptoms 

Overview of Bacterial Wilt

Bacterial wilt occurs primarily on cucumbers and melons, but also may be a problem on squash and pumpkins. The disease is caused by the bacterium Erwinia tracheiphila.

Symptoms of Bacterial Wilt

Symptoms vary on the different host species, but typically the leaves turn a dull green color, and a progressive wilting of lateral leaves occurs. The pathogen moves through the main stem, plugging the vascular tissue, and eventually causes wilting and death of entire plants.

Signs of Bacterial Wilt

The "string test" can be useful in identifying the disease. Start by cutting a wilting stem. Push the two cut ends together and slowly pull apart. If bacterial wilt is present, a string of bacterial ooze should appear, connecting the two cut ends as you slowly pull them apart. Another diagnostic technique is to place the cut end in a glass of water. If bacteria are present, they will ooze out into the water, causing a cloudy appearance near the cut end. Bacteria are microscopic, so you must look closely. If the stem pieces are already dead, these techniques are not useful in diagnosing the disease.

Bacterial ooze from wilt-infested plant
Bacterial ooze from wilt-infested plant.

Disease cycle of Bacterial Wilt 

The disease is caused by the bacterium Erwinia tracheiphila and is closely associated with cucumber beetles. The bacteria overwinter in cucumber beetles. Two species, striped, and spotted cucumber beetles, carry the bacterium from plant to plant, and infection often happens through beetle feeding wounds. The beetles transmit the disease when they feed on young leaves in the spring. Once inside the plant, the bacteria multiply and spread rapidly. The disease is moved from plant to plant by beetles. The disease is usually first seen on the edges of plantings, where the beetles first land.

Type of Sample Needed for Diagnosis and Confirmation

The Iowa State University Plant & Insect Diagnostic Clinic can help you investigate and confirm if your plant has this disease. Please see our website for current forms, fees, and instructions on collecting and packing samples. Contact information for each state's diagnostic laboratory for U.S. residents.  If your sample is from outside of Iowa, please do not submit it to the Plant & Insect Diagnostic Clinic without contacting us.

Want to submit a sample?  Follow the foliar instructions on the annual herbaceous plants page.

Management of Bacterial Wilt

Control of the disease is dependent upon control of the cucumber beetle. There are also varieties available with bacterial wilt resistance. Keep in mind that other disease, insect, pesticide, or environmental factors can cause wilting of leaves and death of vines. An accurate diagnosis is important in order to select the appropriate control measures. Most growers rely on insecticides, but chemical warfare can require many applications per year, which is expensive and may also damage non-target insects, including the bees that pollinate cucurbits. For more information on insecticide use for commercial production see the Midwest Vegetable Production Guide for Commercial Growers Guide.

The use of row covers can help suppress bacterial wilt transmission by excluding the insect vector at a critical time (10 days after anthesis). The efficacy depends on the beetle's population numbers.

Fungicide applications may be avoided by following good Integrated Pest Management practices like those listed in this encyclopedia article. Often, only preventative application is effective to manage plant diseases. If the problem requires a fungicide, state law requires the user to read and follow all labels accordingly. For more information, read Proper fungicide use.  

Last reviewed:
April 2022

Links to this article are strongly encouraged, and this article may be republished without further permission if published as written and if credit is given to the author, Yard and Garden, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. If this article is to be used in any other manner, permission from the author is required. This article was originally published on September 1, 2016. The information contained within may not be the most current and accurate depending on when it is accessed.