Houseplant pests are a headache to deal with. And, among the most common of them are mealybugs. They not only damage your plants but also grow quickly in number, are pesky, sneaky and persistent. So, learning how to get rid of mealybugs on houseplants is something every grower needs to know.
Below I’ll go through everything you need to know about mealybugs. I’ll show you how to identify them, where they come from, what plants they like, the symptoms and damage they cause.
Of course, I’ll also show you proven ways to get rid of mealybugs that are easy and cheap to do.
What Are Mealybugs?
Unlike other pests, mealybugs actually look like bugs with lots of legs. Unfortunately, they’re just as troublesome, if not more, than other critters that mess up your plants and garden.
Mealybugs are white colored scale bugs. They harm your plants by sucking the sap from the stems and leaves of your garden plants. This cause weakness, poor or stunted growth. And eventually you’ll notice yellow leaves that drop.
While mealybugs take more time to suck the life out of the plant than some other pests, your plant will eventually succumb to them if the infestation is not treated early enough.
You’ll can find them in all parts of the plants. Although they enjoy new growth and younger plants and around the leaf joint, which is the area where new buds grow from. Similarly, you’ll see them around the leaf veins.
What Do Mealybugs Look Like?
Mealybugs are white colored bugs with lots of legs with a fuzzy-looking shell-like back. You can find them individually. But more often they move as a group.
From afar, they look like small sprinkles of white powder, much like baby powder, on parts of your plant (mostly the leaves and stems). However, as you take a closer look, you’ll notice they’re actually individual white spots, each of which is a tiny bug with many legs.
While some mealybugs are cream and brown in color, they can easily be distinguished from scale. The former are also soft-bodied insects with a protective waxy coating, whereas scale insects have hard protective shells.
That said, they’re powdery look from after makes people mistaken them for powdery mildew or fungus.
You can also differentiate them from whiteflies since whiteflies can fly around and often disperse into a cloud if part of the plant is disturbed. Also, whiteflies look different from mealybugs because they have small, translucent colored wings.
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What Causes Mealybugs?
For houseplants owners, mealybugs can be a big problem because they are attracted to tropical plants. Since majority of houseplants are tropical in nature, it’s always a good idea to inspect for them.
Additionally, if you overfertilize your plants, you’ll also be unintentionally attracting mealybugs. That’s because high nitrogen levels are appealing to them.
Since sap is what these pests want and need, plants that with lots of juices tend to bring mealybugs around. Citrus trees in particular as well as other fruits are also susceptible which makes mealybugs a potential threat if you’re growing these crops to sell commercially.
Finally, they like soft growth and new growth.
Unfortunately, because of the variety of plants that mealybugs like, it is not easy to avoid these plants together. So, all your can really do is keep your plants as healthy as possible to make them resistant to pests and inspect them regularly for any pest issue.
Mealybug Life Cycle
The full life cycle of a mealybug lasts between 7 to 10 weeks. While it seems very short, a mealybug population can grow very quickly since many different generations of mealybugs can overlap allowing many of them to exist at the same time.
The reason for this is that adult females will lay between 300 to 600 during their lifetime. And besides eating, laying eggs seems to be their main purpose is life.
That’s because soon after they’ve laid their eggs (which is often hidden under the leaves of plants), the adult females die.
So, if you see any mildew like (but not powdery mildew) white specks in the back of the leaves of your houseplants, these may very well be eggs laid by female mealybugs.
It takes about 1 to 3 weeks for the eggs to hatch into nymphs. As they grow, these nymphs will start branching outward in search of food and places to settle down.
It is worth noting that since the eggs and nymphs are very tiny in size, it is common to miss them even during inspection. As such, once they turn into adults, they do so at the same time making a sudden explosion in your houseplants’ mealybug population.
As they feed, the mealybugs will excrete honeydew. During this time, they will also begin growing a waxy protective coating over their bodies.
One thing worth noting that the life cycles of male and female mealybugs are very different.
- Female mealybugs go through 3 stages of life (which are called instars). They can live for as short at 4 weeks all the way to about 8 weeks (or 2 months). And, they die after laying eggs. During their lives, they mostly feed with the eventual goal of laying eggs.
- Male mealybugs seem to serve the same purpose. But, they go through 5 instars. That said they’ll only feed during the first 2 instars. This makes them less of a threat to your plants’ sap. However, for the reaming 3 instars, their sole focus is to fertilize the females. This makes them more dangerous since they’ll the ones responsible for a fast growing mealybug population.
Where Do Mealybugs Come From?
Mealybugs can come from many different places. This makes it very important to identify the conditions they can come from.
In general, mealybugs thrive in:
- Warm climates
- Dry conditions
- Indoors (indoor plants and houseplants)
From the list, the common denominators are warm and dry. This makes warm regions more prone to them. Similarly, they’re more active during the summer as opposed to the winter, especially outdoors.
Indoors, they can occur any time since our homes tend to be kept at moderate to warm conditions that are fairly dry. This is why houseplants (which are mostly tropical in nature) do well indoors. However, the environment is also what mealybugs like.
Greenhouses are likewise perfect examples of this.
Now that you know where mealybugs like to stay, it is easy to identify where they can come from. Some of the most common sources of mealybugs include:
- New plants you bring home from friends or from the nursery
- Potting soil that’s infected with mealybugs
- Houseplants that you bring indoors after summer (especially if each plant is not debugged thoroughly)
- Fresh flowers, vegetables or fruits from the garden
- Tools and pots that have been used for plants with mealybugs
- They can also come along with people who have handled infected plants
Symptoms and Diagnosing for Mealybugs
Mealybugs damage plants by sucking plant juices (sap) from stems and green leaves. Because sap carries nutrients throughout the plant, the latter eventually loses its growing ability and eventually dies (if the mealybug infestation is not treated).
Also, mealybugs excrete honeydew as a byproduct of their sap consumption. Honeydew not only become a breeding ground for fungus but also tends to attract ants to your houseplants and garden.
For indoor plants, this becomes a headache depending on where your plants are located. That’s because you may soon find your home with ants coming out from different areas.
It is also worth noting that mealybugs are only interested in plants. As such, they do not sting or bite people or pets. So, there is no danger of them outside of plant life.
Symptoms of mealybugs present in your plants include:
- White cotton-like masses (they tend to group together)
- Powdery mildew-like specks on the back of leaves (these are eggs laid by female mealybugs)
- Look somewhat like scale insects but are mostly white in color whereas scale are brown in color
- They are often found in groups so you see white fuzzy circles
- Honeydew which they secrete after they suck on the plant’s sap
- Leaf damages (yellowing and dropping foliage)
In addition to hiding under leaves, they also keep themselves out of sight by staying in the crevices and other small spaces that are hard to spot within the plant.
Plants That Mealybugs Like to Attack
As mentioned, mealybugs like tropical plants. As such, almost any houseplant can experience a mealybug attack. However, those with softer stems and leaves are more likely to be the targets.
This includes indoor plants like pothos, philodendron, coleus, schefflera, begonia, African violet, aglaonema, palms, ferns and orchids. Cacti and succulents are likewise susceptible to these pests.
Since mealybugs thrive in warm conditions, you want to be especially wary of them when temperatures are between 70 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. During this time, even outdoor plants become can experience mealybug infestation.
How To Get Rid Of Mealybugs on Houseplants
From above, you already know that houseplants are susceptible to mealybugs. That’s because many of them are tropical plants. Additionally, the indoor conditions of most homes are appealing to these pests makes your houseplants more likely targets.
As such, it is always very important to be vigilant about mealybugs. And, regular inspection is the only way to spot them early.
When you do, it is important to apply treatment immediately.
Here are the most effective ways to kill and get rid of mealybugs on houseplants (and outdoor plants as well).
Spray Them Off With a Hose
This is the quickest and simplest way to get rid of mealybugs. Pressure from a garden hose will wash away the little critters that are on the plant.
Better yet, it will get all the mealybugs that the water hits. Unfortunately, those that the water does not hit will stay around. So, you’ll need to keep repeating the process every few days until there are not more white cotton-like bugs around.
If taking the plant outside is not an option, you can bring it to the shower. A handheld showerhead with strong pressure will be more than enough to spray the critters away. Plus, they go right into the shower drain which means no mess.
Be sure to dry the plant under sunlight with good air circulation right after to prevent fungus and other potential moisture issues.
Use Rubbing Alcohol
Rubber alcohol is another easy way to get rid of mealybugs. My gripe with using alcohol is that if you use a cotton swab, it is meticulous. Thus, you need to spot each bug and make contact.
It is important to make contact since the alcohol is only effective if it touches the waxy coating. This is what destroys that protective barrier.
So, unlike hosing the mealybugs, this needs to be very targeted which makes it a slow, painful process for you with the likelihood of not getting all the pests.
Thus, it is only effective when there are still very few mealybugs.
A better option, at least in my opinion, is to spray them with alcohol. You can make a 90% alcohol to 10% water solution and put it in a spray bottle.
Then, try to spray directly on the insects or areas where you think the insects are hiding.
This gives you a wider, broader coverage. But again, contact needs to happen.
And, since alcohol makes the solution dry quickly, it won’t be long lasting enough to wait for mealybugs to cross over the sprayed areas.
So, you’ll want to spray every week until there are no more pests.
For this one and the other sprays following, always make sure to test it on a small portion of a plant before going all in. If there is no sign of damage or negative effects on the plant after 24 hours it is safe to use for the rest of the plant.
However, if there is an adverse effect, it may mean that dose is too high or concentrated for the specific plant or that certain plant is sensitive to that ingredient.
If that’s the case, try something else or dilute the solution and test again.
DIY Insecticide Soap Spray
An even better option to the alcohol spray is to make your own insecticidal soap spray.
You can make one yourself by mixing:
- 1 liter of water
- 1 teaspoon of mild liquid soap (I like to use Dr. Bronner’s)
Mix this in spray bottle by shaking and spray the affected areas of the plant.
Again, this will need to come into contact with the mealybugs because the soap solution will dissolve the waxy protective coating of the pests which will them cause them to lose their internal moisture and dehydrate to death.
Additionally, it does not dry as quickly as alcohol.
Thus, it will get rid of more mealybugs.
Again, keep on spraying every few days until there are no more bugs.
If you prefer a natural pest control, try neem oil. This is very effective for getting rid of many pests including mealybugs.
But, you want to test this first before spraying a larger portion of the plant. The concertation can sometimes be too strong. The good news is, you can easily dilute it.
Neem oil comes in concentrate form. And it is inexpensive. This makes getting a big container a good idea if you have quite a few houseplants.
The biggest advantage of neem oil over the insecticidal soap spray is that it has more of a lasting effect which helps keep pests from returning. So, you can use it later as a preventive measure as well.
However, you’ll still need to apply a few times to get rid of all the mealybugs.
Another thing worth noting with neem oil is that oil does not mix well with water. So, you need something to kind of bind them. Mild liquid soap is a good choice and you don’t need a lot of it.
If you already have the Dr. Bronner’s you can just use a little of that.
Bring in Predator Insects
Besides spraying, another option you can incorporate are predatory insects. These will work while you sleep or are at work. There are quite a few predator insects when it comes to mealybugs. These include parasitic wasps, lacewings and lace bugs just to name a few.
You can pick up a few from some nurseries or online.
Remove the Mealybugs by Hand
Since mealybugs don’t pose any danger to humans, you can manual remove them by hand if you see them.
Obviously this is a hassle and yucky.
So, another option is to use a washcloth with mild liquid soap or rubbing alcohol then wipe down the leaves and stems as well as the crevices where mealybugs tend to hid.
Prune and Isolate the Plant
This is one of the first things you want to do. And, while it will help limit the infestation, it does not really get rid of the mealybugs.
Once you spot any bug, make sure to isolate the affected plant. Then check the other plants if there are others also infected. If they are isolate them as well.
You can likewise prune the sections where the mealybugs are present. This is easier to do as opposed to targeting them with spray. However, they can easily move or there can be others elsewhere in the plant. And, you can’t prune the entire plant.
So, this only works as an initial measure. You’ll then need to decide which of the other ways above you want to apply.