Berberis sawfly

Berberis sawfly became established in south-east England in about 2000. It has since spread throughout most of England and into parts of Wales. The larvae feed on the leaves of Berberis and Mahonia.

Berberis sawfly larvae.
Berberis sawfly larvae.

Quick facts

Common name Berberis sawfly
Latin name Arge berberidis
Plants affected Berberis, especially B. thunbergii, and Mahonia
Main symptoms Leaves are eaten by caterpillar-like larvae. Plants may be completely defoliated
Caused by Caterpillar-like larvae of a sawfly
Timing May-October

What is berberis sawfly?

Sawflies are a group of insects suborder (Symphyta) of the Hymenoptera (bees, ants and wasps). There are about 500 species of

sawfly in Britain. They have caterpillar like larvae that feed on plant material and are named after the saw like egg laying organ used by females to lay eggs in plant material. Adults can come in a range of colours many are black, green orange or striped yellow and black. Most are small (< 1cm) but some species such as the Birch sawfly (Cimbex femoratus) can be over 2 cm long. Several species can be found in gardens and are part of the biodiversity a healthy garden will support. More information can be found at The Sawflies of Britain and Ireland webpages

Berberis sawfly has creamy white, spotted larvae with black heads. They feed on the foliage of Berberis and Mahonia and can cause extensive defoliation. This species of sawfly will only feed on these two plants. The adult insect is shiny black, up to 8mm long, with greyish-black wings



Seen berberis sawfly? We would like to know.

As part of our research the RHS would like to know where berberis sawfly has been seen.

Please submit your records via our berberis sawfly survey (expected time to complete survey = two minutes).

Submissions to our organism surveys are stored permanently in an anonymised form in order to monitor the spread of the pest or disease. We may contact you within 2 months of your submission in order to verify your sighting but your personal data will not be permanently stored in connection with your submission and will be deleted after 1 year. We publish and share only non-identifiable data from survey submissions (such as a six figure grid reference) with third parties and the public for the purposes of scientific research and advancing understanding among gardeners.

Thank you to everyone who has submitted records  – read a blog about the surveys  A map of distribution is given in the gallery below.

Watch an animated map of the results from the berberis sawfly survey (links to YouTube) 



  • Branches or occasionally the whole plant can be defoliated, berberis sawfly is the only insect likely to cause such severe defoliation to Berberis or Mahonia
  • On inspection, black-headed, creamy white caterpillar-like larvae with black spots and orange yellow blotches may be seen feeding on the foliage
  • The adults are shiny black insects, up to 8mm long, with greyish-black wings. They appear similar to many other species of sawfly
  • Sawfly larvae on plants other than Berberis or Mahonia will be a different species. 


Sawflies can be a part the biodiversity a heathy garden supports. Check Berberis and Mahonia frequently from spring onwards so action can be taken before a damaging infestation has developed. When choosing control options you can minimise harm to non-target animals by using the methods in the non-pesticide section below. Pesticide treatments are likely to kill natural enemies and are only likely to be successful if the entire plant can be reached.


  • Where possible tolerate populations of sawfly, plants usually recover from defoliation 
  • Encourage predators and other natural enemies of sawfly in the garden, such as birds and ground beetles.
  • Check plants regularly from the end of May for the presence of larvae and remove by hand if required and where practical

  • If numbers of larvae are too high for hand picking, control may be achieved by spraying with pesticides. Spraying at dusk is likely to be more effective
  • Organic contact insecticides containing natural pyrethrum (e.g. Bug Clear Ultra 2, Neudorff Bug Free Bug and Larvae Killer). Several applications of this short persistence products may be necessary to give good control
  • The shorter persistence products (that are usually certified for organic growing) are likely to be less damaging to non-target wildlife.
Follow label instructions when using pesticides. 
Plants in flower should not be sprayed due to the danger to bees and other pollinating insects.
Inclusion of a pesticide product does not indicate a recommendation or endorsement by RHS Gardening Advice. It is a list of products currently available to the home gardener.


Pesticides for gardeners (Adobe Acrobat pdf document outlining pesticides available to gardeners)


There are two generations of berberis sawfly during the summer and there may be a third generation in autumn.

The adult sawflies are 7-9mm long and are shiny black with darkened wings. The antennae are swept upwards.

Eggs are inserted under the epidermis on the underside of leaves in batches of up to seven. These hatch into caterpillar-like larvae that proceed to devour the foliage.

When fully grown the larvae are up to 18mm long. They go into the soil to pupate within silk cocoons. This insect overwinters in the ground as pupae.

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