Got Mealybugs? Here’s How to Get Rid of Mealbugs For Good!

Mealybugs are a common pest found in many homes and gardens. Left untreated, they can cause considerable harm to plants, making them hard to manage. Therefore, understanding the signs of mealybug infestation is vital for proper prevention and treatment. 

We’ll provide an overview of what mealybugs are, how they spread, and how you can get rid of mealybugs without using harsh chemicals or sprays. 

First: What are Mealybugs?

closeup of citrus mealybugs

Mealybugs are small, soft-bodied insects that feed on plants and can cause damage to them. They have a white, waxy coating and can be found in gardens, greenhouses, and even indoors. 

They are part of the Pseudococcidae family, which consists of over 300 species of mealybugs worldwide (NIH). 

These pests get their name from the mealy appearance of their bodies due to the wax secretions they produce as a form of protection against predators.

The Mealybug Lifecycle

Mealybugs have a life cycle that includes eggs, nymphs, and adults, except for the long-tailed mealybug, which gives birth to live young. Before reaching adulthood, there are usually three nymph stages (instars), sometimes four. 

The time it takes for immature mealybugs to mature into adults can range from 6 weeks to 2 months, depending on the species, temperature, and humidity. 

Females lay eggs and then die. Reproduction is influenced by the host plant’s nitrogen content, with higher nitrogen levels resulting in more rapid reproduction. Male mealybugs have wings and do not cause damage to plants.

Citrus Mealybugs

The citrus mealybug, Planococcus citri, is one of the most common pests chomping down on your beloved plants. 

One of its most distinguishing features is the short, equal-length waxy filaments that encircle its body. These filaments serve as a protective layer, making it difficult for predators to get to the mealybug’s soft body beneath.

This sneaky bug feeds on a wide range of plants but has a particular affinity for soft-stemmed and succulent plant varieties like coleus, fuchsia, croton, and poinsettia. However, don’t be surprised if you see it making a home on your rosemary, citrus, or bird of paradise plants! 

They inject a toxin into the plant while they feed, which usually causes a malformation.

The life of a female citrus mealybug is a busy one indeed. These little ladies can lay up to 600 tiny yellow eggs, which are protected by a mass of fluffy, white cottony threads. 

Long-Tailed Mealybugs

Unlike their citrus-loving counterparts, the long-tailed mealybug reproduces by giving birth to live young, much like aphids. Once the eggs or young are deposited over a period of several days, the female mealybug dies, leaving her offspring to fend for themselves.

The immature mealybugs must then search for suitable feeding sites, and once they’ve found a spot they like, they settle in for the long haul. 

Male mealybugs spin an elongated, white waxy cocoon as they mature, while female mealybugs go through three different life stages and remain mobile throughout their lives.

Other Types

While the citrus mealybug is the most frequently encountered species, keep an eye out for other mealybug species that occasionally appear on specific host plants. 

For example, the long-tailed mealybug, P. longispinus, or the cactus mealybug, Hypogeococcus festerianus, may also be culprits in causing plant damage.

Houseplants Can Be Infected At The Growers Greenhouse

woman buying a houseplant in garden center

Plants growing indoors or in greenhouses are highly susceptible to the threat of mealybugs, as the mild temperatures in these environments create an ideal breeding ground for these pests. In addition, unlike outdoor plants, indoor plants are often shielded from the natural enemies that generally help keep mealybug populations in check.

Among houseplants, several popular houseplant varieties are especially prone to mealybug infestations. These include ferns, orchids, cactus, hoya, jade, pothos, palms, philodendron, schefflera, aglaonema, coleus, dracaena, ficus, and poinsettia, and various herbs such as rosemary and sage. 

These plants are often the target of aboveground mealybugs, which can feed on the sap and weaken the plant over time.

Signs of Mealybug Infestation

Mealybugs showed up shortly after bringing this plant home. We treated weekly for 3 weeks using the spot-treat method below. They have not returned and the plant is thriving.

Yellowing or wilting of leaves is the most typical indicator that your plants are infested with mealybugs. Other signs include sticky honeydew excreted by the bugs and white cottony masses where they hide, such as leaf axils or stem joints. 

If you notice these signs, taking action quickly before the infestation spreads further throughout your garden or home environment is essential.

More telltale signs are stunting, defoliation, and less blooming caused by their sap-sucking activities, which can deplete a plant’s vital nutrients. As more and more mealybugs feast on your plant’s sap, you will notice discoloration in its leaves and a general lack of vitality in its appearance.

Sticky Residue

Mealybugs excrete honeydew while they feed, leaving behind a sticky residue often mistaken for dew drops or morning condensation. If you find this substance near your plants, chances are good that you have an active mealybug infestation underway.

Cottony Masses

Another telltale sign of mealybug activity is cottony masses found on stems or leaves around where the bugs were last seen feeding. Upon closer inspection, these masses may be easily mistaken for bits of fluff from nearby trees. 

But, they will reveal themselves as clusters containing hundreds (if not thousands) of tiny white eggs laid by female adult bugs during mating season.

Stunted Growth

Lastly, stunted growth due to inadequate nutrient absorption caused by large-scale insect consumption may also indicate a presence in your garden or houseplant collection. In addition, plants affected by heavy bug populations tend to appear smaller than usual, with fewer branches and buds than their uninfested counterparts- so keep an eye out for sudden changes like these too.

If you spot any combination (or all) of these warning signs, it is time to take action against those pesky critters before they do even more damage. 

Luckily, plenty of natural ways are available today, such as neem oil sprays and predatory insects like ladybirds which help control and eliminate them without resorting to harsh chemicals. Read our section on how to get rid of mealybugs below for more treatment information.

Awareness of indications of a mealybug attack is essential to act swiftly and stop further harm. Now let us turn our attention to strategies for successfully managing mealybugs.

TLDR Summary: Mealybugs can be a real menace to your plants if left unchecked, but there are telltale signs you should look out for, such as white clusters, yellowing leaves, and sticky residue. Taking proactive steps like using neem oil or releasing beneficial insects can help get the infestation under control before it gets too far gone.

How to Get Rid of Mealybugs

mealybugs on a succulent plant
We saved this plant using the spot treatment method below.

Spot Treating Houseplants

If you’re dealing with a small mealybug infestation on your houseplants, one effective spot treatment method is to use a 70% or less solution of isopropyl alcohol in water. 

Simply dab the solution directly onto the mealybugs using a cotton swab to kill or remove them. 

Before applying the solution, it’s essential to test a small area of the plant 1 to 2 days beforehand to ensure it won’t cause any leaf burn (phytotoxicity). In some cases, a more diluted solution may be necessary. 

For more extensive infestations, isopropyl alcohol (a 10-25% solution) can be applied with a spray bottle. However, it’s important to note that this method must be repeated weekly until the infestation is completely eradicated.

Using isopropyl alcohol as a spot treatment can be an effective way to control mealybugs without the use of harsh chemicals. With a bit of patience and persistence, you can successfully eliminate these pests and protect the health and beauty of your houseplants.

Chemical Treatment

Chemical control is one option for controlling mealybugs, but it should only be used when other methods have failed since chemicals may harm beneficial organisms like bees or ladybeetles that help keep pest populations under control naturally in your garden. 

One effective chemical treatment involves using an insecticidal soap spray directly onto affected areas once every two weeks until no more signs appear, then monthly maintenance sprays afterward if necessary.

Natural Ways to Control Mealybugs

You don’t have to reach for the insecticide when it comes to controlling mealybugs. Instead, there are several natural ways to keep them at bay. 

Introducing beneficial insects like ladybugs, mealybug destroyer (type of ladybug- Cryptolaemus montrouzieri link ), or lacewings into your garden is an excellent way to eliminate mealybugs without using chemicals. 

Lady beetles and lacewings will feed on the mealybugs and help reduce their population. Encouraging birds who dine on them is another viable option.

Insecticidal Soap & Horticultural Oil

The most effective way to control mealybugs is using insecticidal soap or horticultural oil sprays. These products will kill both adult mealybugs and their eggs. 

Be sure to thoroughly spray all parts of the plant to eliminate any hidden pests lurking in crevices or underneath the foliage. It’s also essential to keep up with regular treatments until there are no more signs of infestation– don’t let your guard down too soon.

Parasitic Wasps

When controlling mealybug populations, parasitic wasps can also be a powerful tool. Several species of parasitic wasps, including Leptomastix spp., Leptomastidea spp., and Anagrus spp., can help keep mealybugs in check. 

These tiny wasps can lay their eggs inside the mealybug’s body, hatching and consuming the host from the inside out, effectively killing it.

While parasitic wasps can be effective, they are typically best used when mealybug numbers are relatively low. This is because the parasitic wasps need to be able to find and lay their eggs inside the mealybugs, which can be difficult when populations are high. 

Additionally, parasitic wasps may take some time to establish themselves and provide adequate control, so it’s essential to be patient and continue monitoring the situation. But, when used correctly, parasitic wasps can be a valuable tool in controlling mealybugs and keeping your plants healthy.

Controlling Mealybugs in Greenhouses

For those looking for a more natural and eco-friendly approach to controlling mealybug populations in greenhouses, citrus groves, and interiorscapes, commercial releases of the parasitic wasp Leptomastix dactylopii may be a viable solution. 

This species of parasitic wasp is known to kill citrus mealybugs and is available for purchase from various suppliers.

While Leptomastix dactylopii is effective against citrus mealybugs, it’s important to note that it may not be effective against other species of mealybugs. Additionally, it may take several weeks or even months for the parasitic wasps to establish a strong enough population to significantly impact the mealybug population.

Nevertheless, using Leptomastix dactylopii as a natural predator can be a safe and effective method for controlling mealybugs in specific settings. 

Neem Oil

Another option is neem oil, which can be used as a natural pesticide that disrupts the life cycle of mealybugs and prevents them from reproducing further. 

Neem oil has advantages such as warding off aphids, spider mites, whiteflies, and other bugs that may be drawn to your plants. And it can be applied directly onto affected areas or diluted with water before spraying onto foliage or soil around plants where there might be an infestation.

Physical Removal

Additionally, manually removing visible adults from plants and pruning heavily infested branches or entire plants may be necessary for some instances. 

For physical removal, it is best to take action early in the morning when temperatures are lower. You can then manually remove them from the plant leaves or use cotton swabs dipped in rubbing alcohol to eradicate egg clusters on stems or undersides of leaves- this should only be done if you have identified the presence of eggs, as they may not always be visible.

Maintaining your plants in optimal condition with consistent hydration and nourishment can make them less appealing to bothersome bugs, reducing the likelihood of settling in your garden.

Using natural methods to control mealybugs, you can keep your plants healthy and free from these pests without harsh chemicals. Having discussed natural methods of mealybug control, let’s focus on preventive measures to keep them from invading your plants.

TLDR Summary: We can keep mealybugs at bay by introducing beneficial insects, using neem oil as a natural pesticide, or manually removing them. Keeping plants healthy and well cared for will make them less attractive to these pesky bugs. In other words- a bit of precaution is worth more than addressing the issue after it has already occurred.

Mealybug Prevention Tips

Prevention is the best medicine when it comes to mealybugs. Taking steps to avoid an infestation can save you a lot of hassle and heartache. To avoid mealybugs, take preventive measures such as regularly inspecting plants and discarding infected specimens.

Inspect new plants before bringing them home:

Before introducing any new plant into your home or garden:

  1. Inspect it thoroughly for signs of mealybugs.
  2. Quarantine any potentially infected plants separately from other plants for at least two weeks before adding them to your collection.
  3. Allow a period of time to spot any issues and take action quickly if needed.

To keep your plants healthy and free of mealybugs, ensure they are not neglected or stressed while providing adequate sunlight and water- overwatering can also be an issue so make sure not to go overboard. 

Regularly pruning will help keep them looking their best and encourages healthy growth, which is more resistant to attack by pests like mealybugs.

Check regularly

Regularly checking up on your houseplants is essential for preventing an infestation as this allows you to catch any signs of trouble early on and deal with it quickly before things get out of hand. 

Keep an eye out for white cottony patches, sticky honeydew secretions, or black sooty mold growing near the base of leaves or stems – these could all indicate something’s amiss.

Clean up debris around pots

Mealybugs love moist environments, so ensure there’s no excess moisture collecting around pot bases by cleaning up fallen leaves or other debris that might provide shelter for these bugs. 

It’s also essential not to let the soil dry out completely between waterings as this can create ideal conditions for mealybug reproduction – don’t overdo it, either.

TLDR Summary: A proactive approach is vital when it comes to preventing mealybugs; inspect new plants before introducing them, keep your existing plants healthy and well-maintained with adequate sunlight and water, check up on all of your houseplants regularly for signs of trouble, and make sure the environment around pot bases stays clean.

FAQs About Mealybugs

What kills mealybugs instantly?

To instantly kill mealybugs, an effective method is to use insecticidal soap or horticultural oil spray. These products contain active ingredients such as potassium salts of fatty acids, which disrupt the cell membranes and destroy the protective waxy coating on the insects’ bodies. 

Additionally, some formulations also contain pyrethrins which have contact toxicity against many types of pests including mealybugs. Therefore, following label instructions carefully when using these products for maximum effectiveness and safety is essential.

How did I get mealy bugs?

Mealybugs may enter homes through open windows or doors, be brought in with purchased plants (greenhouse plant growers), or travel by wind currents from one area to another. Additionally, they can spread rapidly between plants when kept close together indoors or outdoors. 

Can plants recover from mealybugs?

Yes, plants can recover from mealybugs. However, the extent of the problem and how quickly it is handled may decide if a recovery can be achieved. To begin the treatment process, it is crucial to identify the type of mealybug present and take suitable action.

This may include removing affected leaves or stems, using a pesticide or insecticide designed explicitly for mealybugs, increasing humidity levels around your plant if necessary, and monitoring closely for signs of improvement over time. With patience and proper care, most plants can fully recover from an infestation of mealybugs.

Are mealybugs harmful to humans?

No, mealybugs are not harmful to humans. Mealybugs feed on vegetation, causing harm to harvests and indoor plants; however, they do not sting or bite humans.

Unfortunately, mealybugs can also carry plant viruses that may be transferred from one plant to another. Therefore, gardeners and homeowners alike need to keep an eye out for them and take steps such as pruning affected areas of the plant or using insecticidal soap if needed.

Final Thoughts on These Buggers

Realizing the indications of an attack, strategies to manage them, typical approaches to dispose of them, and avoidance tips are fundamental in keeping these pests away from your plants. Taking proactive steps now will help you keep mealybugs at bay for good.

References

https://www.uvm.edu/~entlab/Greenhouse%20IPM/Pests&Beneficials/Mealybugs.pdf

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Davin is a jack-of-all-trades but has professional training and experience in various home and garden subjects. He leans on other experts when needed and edits and fact-checks all articles.