Are there white, woolly fluff pieces on your plant? Chances are you're dealing with mealybugs! Mealybugs come in many shapes and sizes worldwide. It is a very annoying pest that is harmful to your plants. If you have a large mealybug infestation, your plants can become undernourished and die. But don't throw in the towel just yet: If you can get to it on time, mealybugs are easy to control and your plants will soon be growing again at full speed! Read here what mealybug is and how you can best combat these little woolly creatures.
What is a mealybug?
Do you see white fluff in the axils of the leaves of your houseplant and on the stems? Then your plant probably suffers from mealy bugs. A mealybug belongs to the Coccoidea family and is closely related to the aphid. A mealybug is slightly pinkish/orange, but covers itself with a layer of white 'woolly' threads. They can grow about 4 to 6 millimeters and prefer to be found under the leaves or in the young tops of the plant. Mealybugs are considered a difficult pest to deal with. A few mealybugs here and there are usually not an immediate danger, but when the population gets too big, your plants run the risk of getting sick and eventually even dying!
A mealybug is, like the aphid, a species of louse that feeds on the sap from plants. The female mealybug punctures a hole in the plant to drink the sap from the veins of the plant. The mealybug is not that difficult when it comes to housing: they can occur on any houseplant, but plants such as the Crassula, Cactus, Euphorbia and Rhipsalis are especially susceptible to them. The mealybug also thrives in different living conditions. In fact, they can live up to -40°C just fine! Brr...
How do I recognise mealybugs?
You can easily recognise mealybugs with the eye. If your plant is suffering from mealy bugs, you will see many white, downy fluffy pieces at the attachments of the leaves and stems. The fluff looks like cotton balls and is very compact. If you look further, you may also see among the leaves of these white fluffy fluffy balls or even a mealybug!
A mealybug is a small insect with a soft body that produces white cotton-like material. With this, they protect themselves from heat and moisture loss, but also repel water-based insecticides. An adult mealybug averages from 3 to 6 millimeters.
A female and male mealybug look completely different. The females develop a white, downy wax secretion on the body from the third larval stage onwards and can therefore be recognized as mealybugs with the naked eye. The males are usually only 1 millimeter in size and have wings. The funny thing is that the males have no mouthparts and therefore cannot eat. They are so small that they are also hardly visible, if at all. Their only job is to fertilize the female mealybug. A female mealybug is an oval-shaped insect that has covered itself with a white substance. They hardly move at all. A female can deposit 300 to as many as 500 eggs in an egg sac of white wax threads. She uses the white wax threads to protect her eggs. After this egg deposition, which takes an average of 5 to 10 days, the female will dehydrate and eventually die. If a female remains unfertilized they will continue to take in food and can live up to 8 months!
From the egg the first nymphal stage develops. These nymphs are called "crawlers" or crawlers. They are super mobile and spread through your houseplant. They look for a nice spot to get juice from your plant. They hide on the underside of leaves, leaf folds, around growing tops, in stem crevices and in other tight spots that are hard to reach. They can even hide in the roots! A female nymph remains mobile throughout its development, while a male nymph attaches itself to the plant. A male develops into a pupa in the second stage, which is contained in a white cotton-like cocoon. A female changes shape very little. When the females mature they will soon secrete a pheromone to attract males to reproduce themselves again.
How do mealybugs damage my plants?
Mealybugs, and the eggs or nymphs of a mealybug, spread quickly and easily. This can be done through air currents, such as drafts, but also through cross-contamination. You can carry the mealybug yourself on your clothes, infecting other houseplants!
The nymphs and females bite on nutritious spots and suck the plant juices. This stunts the growth of your houseplant and causes leaf deformation and yellowing. The result is reduced photosynthesis, which prevents the plant from continuing to grow nicely.
Most mealybug species bite their way through the leaf into the veins of the plant. Here they feed on nutrients. They can also find a way to the roots and feed on them! This nibbling causes leaves to turn yellow or brown and eventually die. In addition, harmful viruses can be transmitted. So mealybugs cause damage to your houseplant in several ways.
The plant sap that the mealybugs gulp down is rich in sugar, but otherwise there are not many nutritious substances in it. Therefore mealybugs need to take in a lot of sap to get enough nutrients. They excrete these excess sugars in the form of honeydew. A sticky substance that fungi grow very well on. Besides making the plant sick from mold, it also doesn't look very attractive.
How can I prevent mealybugs?
Prevention is better than cure, but unfortunately we cannot 100% prevent your plant from getting mealybugs. However, you can take a few precautions to reduce the chance of getting these woolly lice. Mealybugs travel with the wind and can also be found on your clothes. This makes us, unknowingly, the biggest spreaders of the pests! You should also make sure to inspect new plants, pots, or plant tools before you use them on your plants. Unfortunately, no matter how careful you are, there is still a chance of mealybugs.
A well cared for and healthy plant is the best protection against diseases and plagues. Make sure therefore that your plant is in the right place, gets light and water as desired and give it once in a while some extra plant food. To protect your plant against mealybugs you should also make sure that your plant is not in a draught. Mealybugs blow with the wind and see your green houseplant as the perfect landing strip! If a mealybug infestation should occur, the plant will be well cared for and strong enough to survive the attack. Cuttings and young plants often do not have enough strength yet to withstand an attack on their tender roots. Should you suspect that you have a mealy bug infestation, keep a super close eye on it and intervene as soon as possible!
How can I control mealybugs?
Have you spotted mealybugs in your houseplant? Then it's important to take action as soon as possible. Of course there is no reason to panic. Your green plant won't die from mealybugs overnight. However, your plant may be weakened and the chance of diseases and fungi is greater! With young plants and cuttings things can go wrong more quickly: They are not as strong yet and will find it harder to survive a mealybug attack. So it is very important to act immediately.
If one of your plants is suffering from mealybugs, your other plants might also be infected. The mealybugs can easily spread through your house via your clothes. Therefore, keep the plant separate from other houseplants and wash your hands well after touching it to prevent cross-contamination.
Small mealybug infestation
Have you discovered the mealybug in an early stage? Then the first thing you can do is try to remove the mealybugs manually. You can try to spray them off with a plant sprayer with a hard jet. Make sure that you do not do this near other plants and that you can easily clean the spot again to prevent further infestation. You can also remove a lot of mealy bugs with a cotton swab, cotton pad or kitchen paper. Take the underside and armpits of the leaves with you, this is where the egg sacs are often kept.
An age-old remedy for fighting mealybugs is methylated spirits. Apply this to a cotton swab and dot all the mealybugs one by one. You can also mix a little spirit with water and give the plant a nice spray. It is quite a precise job, because you have to make sure that you really get every mealybug. Repeat weekly and keep checking in between to make sure all bugs are really gone. The PLNTSdoctor Kit contains Neem oil: a wonder drug against almost every kind of pest. Mix the oil with water and detergent and spray it on the plant. Repeat until you no longer see the mealybug. This may take a few days. Stubborn spots can also be touched up with neem oil and a cotton swab.
Some species of mealybugs are not only found on the leaves and stems but also in the soil near the roots. In that case, you need to tackle the control a little more rigorously. Remove the plant from the pot and carefully clean the roots as much as possible. Then repot your plant in new and fresh potting soil. PLNTS potting soil contains the best nutrients that will help protect your plant from pests.
Larger mealybug infestation
Did the previous steps not solve your mealy bug infestation or do you see that your plant has a lot of mealy bug? Then get to work with the Ecokuur Leaf Insect Spray. This environmentally responsible product is perfect for eradicating mealy bugs and other pests. Spray the product homogeneously over the plants where the insects are found. Also treat the underside of the leaves to hit as many insects as possible. Spray 3 times a week on the plant and then wait a week for the result. Is the infestation still not completely resolved? Then repeat the steps!
Fight mealybugs with biological pest control
Another very effective and natural way to control mealybugs is with biological control agents. We have recently been introduced to the mite called "Cryptolaemus montrouzieri". The funny thing about this pest controller is that they look very much like the mealybug itself, as they have a white fluffy back and can therefore easily be seen with the naked eye.
These mites are very young (larvae) and hungry ladybirds that can protect your plant from mealybugs for about a month. In optimal conditions these bugs can eat up to 250 mealybugs! These fluffy mites only stay on your plants, so don't worry about finding them all over your house. They will eventually disappear or grow into a real ladybird. You can then easily take the ladybird outside or they will find their way out on their own.
Want to know more about biological control? We have listed all the ins and outs in our blog: Which natural and biological pest control for which pest?
PLNTS hacks against mealybugs
If you search online for the best way to fight mealybugs you will come across a huge number of options. It is good to know that there is not one specific method that works for everyone. For some plants one way works better than another. It's a matter of trying!
Below are a number of alternative hacks to help you fight mealybugs.
Fighting mealy bugs with vinegar is an easy method. This home remedy has almost everyone in the house and also helps fight other pests like red spider mite and white fly. Pour a dash of vinegar into a plant sprayer and top up with water. Now spray the plant where the mealy bug is located with the mixture and let the vinegar mix do its work. Is the mealybug not gone after a few days? Then repeat the steps!
A slightly different method of controlling mealybugs is with salt. It's not the easiest or fastest way, but if the other methods don't work it's definitely worth a try! Fill a pitcher half full of table salt and top it up with water. Stir until most of the salt is dissolved and then pour the mixture over the plant. Then fill the jug with clean tap water and rinse the plant clean. Check after a few days if the mealybugs have disappeared.