Discovering tiny bugs on your plants is never a good sign. If you are a beginner gardener, identifying and getting rid of mealybugs might be a bit of a challenge. But don’t worry, this is where we come to the rescue.
If you have recently discovered some tiny, oval-shaped insects on your plants, you are probably dealing with mealybugs. While this is cause for concern, it is a manageable situation. In the following lines, we will tell you what mealybugs are, how to identify these pests, and how to recognize the signs of an infection. Last but not least, we will reveal the most effective solutions for ridding your plants of mealybugs. We also have some tips for preventing future infestations, so read on.
What Are Mealybugs?
Mealybugs belong to the Pseudococcidae family and they feed on plant juices. Not only do they harm the plants when they feed off them, but they can also cause several plant diseases.
Mealybugs are small, oval-shaped insects found mostly in warm and moist environments. Their name comes from the powdery wax that they secrete. This layer of wax is used as protection when the bugs feed on the plant juices and it also protects the eggs laid by the females. The bodies of these bugs are hidden by shield-like scales, yet they are unarmored and soft-bodied.
These pests are often found in greenhouses, but they also feed on many different houseplants and subtropical trees. Most insects don’t get along with other types of insects, but mealybugs often create symbiotic relations with ants. The ants protect the tiny plant pests from predators and in return, the ants get to feed on the honey juice produced by the mealybugs.
Mealybugs are dimorphic, meaning that they have two distinct forms. The females are nymphs, they lack wings, but can sometimes have legs and exhibit slight mobility. Males start off as ovoid, wingless nymphs, but they develop wings as they mature. The males only feed when they are young. When they reach maturity, they never feed and their sole purpose is to fertilize the females. The females feed on the plant sap. They usually reside in plant roots or other narrow openings. In some cases, they can also be found on the bottoms of stored fruit.
When it comes to apartment plants, it’s important to mention that mealybugs are merely minor inconveniences, and can easily be treated. However, they can cause havoc in certain countries affecting various crops. The most affected crops are mango, citrus, sugarcane, pineapple, grapes, coffee, and papaya. They are particularly invasive in India. On the other hand, some species can also be used as biological pest control to deal with invasive plants.
How to Identify Mealybugs
Before rushing to rid your plants of mealybugs, it is important to make sure that you have correctly identified the pests. Applying the wrong pest treatment can put a lot of unnecessary stress on your plants, especially if you use chemical insecticides.
Like most plant pests, mealybugs are very small and can sometimes be invisible to the naked eye. These pests will infest most parts of the plant, but they are most commonly found on the undersides of the leaves and stems. They move very slowly, but once they find a suitable place to feed and breed, they will remain there, forming clusters of pests. At first sight, they may look like tiny specs of cotton. Upon closer inspections, you can easily identify their oval-shaped bodies. Some species can even present body extensions which makes them look as if they have multiple legs.
How to Recognize a Mealybug Infestation
It is important to know if your plants are just mildly affected by mealybugs or if you are dealing with a severe infestation. The gravity of the infestation will dictate how rigorous you need to be with the treatment.
It is important to remember that mealybugs multiply very quickly, which is why it is essential to spot the signs of an infestation as early as possible. The females lay between 300 and 600 eggs in the wax layer found on the undersides of the leaves. Despite the fact that these pests don’t fly, they can easily spread from one plant to another. They use natural factors to spread such as air circulation or ant movements. Within crops, they can spread with the help of farmworkers and farm implements. Here are the most common signs of a mealybug infestation.
Leaves and stems covered with a waxy secretion
First of all, you should regularly inspect your plants. Ideally, you should give your plants a quick inspection whenever you water them. Inspect not only the upperside but also the underside of the leaves. The waxy secretion is the easiest way to recognize an infestation. The pests produce this secretion when sucking the nutrients from the plant leaves. Nonetheless, keep in mind that other insects cause sticky secretions too. As such, make sure to inspect the plant closely to recognize the characteristics of mealybugs.
The early signs of an infestation will show various symptoms such as yellowing and wilting leaves. Eventually, the leaves will drop. While leaf damage can be caused by other factors as well, it is also one of the main indicators of a pest infestation.
Mold and other pests
It is also common for mealybugs to cause mold growth and to attract other pests as well. It is their waxy secretion that causes mold and attracts other insects. As mentioned above, the most common insects attracted by mealybugs are ants.
Poor plant condition
When feeding on a plant’s sap, mealybugs actually suck the nutrients out of the plant. Your plant needs these nutrients to survive, and being depleted of them will lead to a generally poor condition. In the end, a pest infestation can kill a plant altogether. As such, if your plant is not looking so good and you don’t know what is wrong with it, take a good look at the undersides of its leaves.
How to Get Rid of Mealybugs?
While you may be tempted to apply chemical insecticides, you might want to try natural remedies first. You will be surprised to discover just how effective these remedies are:
Clean or prune infected leaves
Removing the infested parts of a plant is the first step to getting rid of these pests. If a leaf is not severely affected, you can try to simply wipe it to remove the pests and their waxy secretion. If your plant has thin and textured leaves, it may be difficult to wipe them clean. If that is the case, pruning the affected leaves will be the more efficient approach.
Use a natural insecticide
A combination of Neem oil, soap, and water will do wonders against mealybugs. This solution is effective against other pests as well. To obtain this natural remedy, simply mix one and a half tablespoons of Neem oil with one tablespoon of mild dish soap and one litre of lukewarm water. Spray this solution on affected plants and watch as the pest infestation diminishes by each day.
While any soap will be effective against these pests, we advise you to use insecticidal soap, or a mild scent-free, additive-free soap. Mix one tablespoon of soap in two litres of water and spray the solution on infected plants. Keep in mind that strong, scented soaps can harm the plant.
You can easily get rid of minor outbreaks, by cleaning the affected areas with some Q-tips dipped in rubbing alcohol. You can also make a mixture of 3 cups of alcohol, 3 cups of water, and one tablespoon of soap. Spray this mixture on infected plants.
Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar works in a way similar to alcohol. However, it needs to be heavily diluted and applied several times. Direct application can severely damage the plants. For the best results, mix one part apple cider vinegar with four parts water.
There are numerous beneficial insects that feed on plant pests. This is why mealybugs rarely appear in diverse natural gardens. To attract beneficial insects, you will need to plant some attractive flowers near your affected crops. You will get the best results with marigolds and rosemary. However, this solution will yield long-term results, so it is best to use it more as a prevention method.
The most efficient essential oils against mealybugs are peppermint oil, citrus oil, and thyme oil. However, keep in mind that essential oils are very strong, and they can damage the plants if they are not properly diluted. The best thing to do is to combine 12 drops of essential oils with a cup of water.
Hosing the bugs
This is not a solution for apartment plants but it can work great for crops. When watering the plants, hosing the leaves will shake off the nasty pests, severely decreasing their chances of survival.
When dealing with a severe infestation, insecticides can yield faster results than natural remedies. You can try Gargoil which is an organic insecticide. You can also try Debug Turbo or other insecticides recommended at your local store. If you have a big crop infestation and you don’t have a lot of experience dealing with mealybugs, you should consider hiring professional help.
Once you have successfully dealt with the infestation, you may want to take a few steps to reduce the chances of dealing with it again. Here’s what you can do:
Inspect new plants before planting
We generally assume that new plants are all healthy. Nonetheless, greenhouses are the most common ground for pest infestations. As such, it is not uncommon for young plants to be infected before you bring them home. It is recommended to inspect young plants properly before planting them. When it comes to container plants, keep them in a separate location if possible. A few weeks of solitary life should be enough to know if the plant is healthy and if it can join your existing plants.
Don’t overwater your plants
As we already mentioned, these pests love moist environments. To avoid mealybugs and other pests, try not to give your plants more water than they need. Excess water will create an ideal environment for the development of mealybugs and many other pests and diseases.
As we already mentioned, ants protect mealybugs and they aid with their spread. By controlling the ants in your environment, you will decrease the survival rates of mealybugs.
Drop nighttime temperatures
This only works with apartment plants that can survive in colder night temperatures. Mealybugs prefer tropical environments. Sudden drops in temperature will create an uninhabitable environment for these pests.
Keep your plants healthy
Keeping your plants in good shape may seem like an obvious piece of advice, but it is worth mentioning. Healthy plants are less susceptible to mealybugs and other pests and diseases. Make sure your plants are in top condition at all times. In some cases, it might be hard to tell if a plant looks bad because of environmental conditions or because it is affected by pests or diseases. If some plants don’t look healthy and happy, consider isolating them until you get them back in shape.
As you can see, mealybugs are not the end of the world. They may look unpleasant, but they are easier to shake off than you think. Just like pets, and all other beings for that matter, plants need a lot of attention. Regular inspection will prevent mealybugs and save you a lot of trouble in the future. It is also a great way to bond with your plants. You get your dose of nature, the plants get their dose of affection and mealybugs don’t get a chance at survival.
If these pests manage to escape your rigorous eyes and you end up dealing with an infestation, remember to try natural remedies when first. Natural treatments are less invasive, less toxic, and don’t pose any risks for the health of your plants. Only when all other methods have failed trying chemical pesticides might be a solution.