Mealybugs, a common pest related to scale insects, are small, sap-sucking pests that only reach a quarter-inch in size. There are almost 300 species of mealybug in North America alone, with more living around the world. But how do they get onto your plants? And how do you protect your plants? Like most pests and diseases, mealybugs are attracted to plants that have been weakened in some way. Let’s break it down.
Mealybugs love plants with high nitrogen levels, soft growth, and juice that they love to feed on (citrus crops are particularly susceptible for this reason). Usually, these insects are drawn to plants that are being cared for too much as opposed to too little. Overwatering or over-fertilizing your plants results in a squishy, soft environment where mealybugs can thrive.
Like other sap-sucking pests, mealybugs are essentially taking the life from your plant. They favor crops with delicious flavors, sucking out the juice and doing damage in the process. Plants infested with mealybugs will start having yellowing leaves and leaf drop, and in extreme cases, mealybug damage will cause premature buds, fruits, and veggies to fall off.
Worse yet, they don’t come alone. If left unattended, a mealybug problem can grow to the point where sooty mold fungus starts to develop. With their damage comes a weakened plant, and weakened plants are prone to other problems — ranging anywhere from diseases to even more pests. Mealybugs should be dealt with as soon as you catch them.
Signs of a mealybug infestation in your garden
As they cause damage to your plant, mealybugs will secrete a white powdery substance on the leaves and stems of plants. If you notice that your plants are starting to look wax-like or cottony, you may have a mealybug infestation on your hands.
Yes! They can affect both outdoor and indoor plants, so this is a pest you’ll want to be on the lookout for in all your garden spaces. Because mealybugs are warm-weather insects, they’re mostly found indoors and in greenhouses in northern climates (and rarely on outdoor crops).
When it comes to indoor plants, mealybugs are drawn more to tropical species that like warm, humid environments. If you don’t have any of those in your home, your plants are at less of a risk; however, every species and variety of plant will have its own challenges. Some tropical plants might not attract mealybugs, and some non-tropical plants might get infested with them much more easily than the rest. It’s important to familiarize yourself with every kind of plant you’re growing to know what challenges might lie ahead.
When it comes to getting rid of your mealybugs, most techniques can be used on both indoor and outdoor plants. Where possible, you want to try natural methods of removal first to cause as little harm to the infested plant as possible (as well as those in the surrounding area). If you have a mealybug infestation on any of your plants, here are some things you can try — in order of small-size infestation to large-size:
- Use isopropyl alcohol. For small infestations, you can soak a cotton ball in 70 percent rubbing alcohol and wipe the mealybugs away. This kills and removes them. Test on one leaf before wiping the whole plant to make sure the leaves don’t burn.
- Wash the mealybugs away. If you don’t want to risk burning your plant, you can also use this method to remove small infestations. Test on one leaf first to make sure you have a powerful enough stream of water, and to make sure that the plant can withstand the treatment.
- Treat with neem oil. Neem oil can be used for small- to mid-size infestations since you’ll still be applying by hand. It affects mealybugs’ (and other insects!) ability to feed and helps repel future problems. If they can’t feed, they’ll move on. This treatment may be best done on outdoor plants to avoid the risk of the mealybugs simply moving to another houseplant.
- Use a homemade spray. Homemade insect sprays are great for slightly larger infestations that aren’t as easily removed by hand. You can find some natural homemade pesticide options to use here.
- Introduce predatory insects. This method should only be used in outdoor gardens, as you don’t want more insects brought into your home. By introducing natural predators of the mealybugs in a controlled manner, you’ll be able to curb the infestation.
If all else fails, you can try these non-natural solutions to resolve the mealybug problem: insecticidal soap or synthetic chemical pesticide. These methods have directions that should be followed as closely as possible, not only to make sure you’re using the products correctly but to keep your plants safe from harm as much as possible.
Mealybugs, other pests, and any diseases are nothing you want to play around with. Sometimes we don’t notice until it’s too late — and that’s only human. It happens to the best of us (even expert gardeners). But as long as you tend to the problem as soon as you notice signs of it, your plants have a good chance of surviving.
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