With people spending more time in their homes, many are seeking to beautify it and make it a more inviting environment in which to live and, in many cases, work. Houseplants are a great way to bring the outdoors in and are an inexpensive decorating idea that makes a room more welcoming.
But what happens when bugs – specifically mealybugs – have a different agenda?
Mealybugs are common pests of houseplants. They are pink, soft-bodied insects covered with a white, waxy, cottony material. The white “fluff” helps protect them from excessive heat and moisture loss.
Although there are more than 275 species of mealybugs in the continental United States, two main species are frequently found on houseplants: the citrus mealybug and the longtailed mealybug.
The citrus mealybug feeds on a wide variety of plants, and especially likes soft-stemmed and succulent plants such as coleus, fuchsia, croton, jade, poinsettia and cactus. It also shows up consistently on rosemary, citrus, and bird of paradise. Adult female citrus mealybugs produce from 300 to 600 eggs, which are deposited in a white, fluffy case called an ovisac. These ovisacs are commonly seen under leaves and along the stems of houseplants. Adult females have an average lifespan of 88 days.
The long-tailed mealybug derives its name from the long (3 to 4 mm) waxy filaments extending from the rear of adult females. Fewer eggs (about 200) are produced by adult females, but this species produces live young and no ovisacs are present.
How can you spot mealybugs? These tiny, mobile pests may be found at rest or slowly crawling on the undersides of leaves, on stems in flowers or even on the outside of the pot. The best method for detecting infestations of mealybugs on leaves and stems is visual inspection – just looking at the plants. Both the insects themselves and the eggs in their masses of waxy threads may look like white cotton on the plant. On some plants, mealybugs concentrate on the growing tips, and on other plants they are more dispersed. The longtailed mealybug frequently conceals itself in leaf whorls.
Mealybugs damage plants by sucking sap and their feeding can result in yellowing leaves, premature leaf drop, stunting, dieback or even death of the plants. They secrete large amounts of a sweet, sticky liquid waste product called honeydew, which supports the growth of black sooty mold on plant parts.
This pest is usually brought in on an infested plant and can easily crawl from one plant to another, especially when leaves or branches overlap. Therefore, one of the best ways to manage mealybugs on houseplants is to carefully check plants being considered for purchase and reject any infested plants. Quarantine new plants for 7-10 days in an isolated spot, and check for signs of mealybugs or other household pests before adding these plants to the mix.
Other suggestions for controlling mealybugs include the following:
- Check under leaves, in new leaf folds, and around the growing tips for signs of infestation. Mealybugs like lush foliage, so avoid over-fertilizing with excess nitrogen.
- Dab each insect with an alcohol-soaked cotton swab and gently rub the insects from leaves or stems.
- Place the plant in a tub or shower stall and knock the mealybugs off with a brisk water spray.
- Carefully wash plants with soapy water; one tablespoon of liquid dish detergent in one quart of water is a good ratio to use. Monitor the plant; retreatment may be necessary.
- When an interior plant is heavily infested with mealybugs and your control efforts have not been successful, consider discarding the plant before the pests spread to other houseplants.
Are bugs ruining your happy home? A pest control expert can inspect your home and deliver peace of mind.