Chances are, even if you haven’t realized it, you’ve had those pesky little white bugs before. Mealybugs. Ugh, what a dirty word! I cringe just typing it. Mealybugs are unarmored scale insects that feed on the plant juices of our beloved plant friends. They suck out the sap from plants, cause wilted and yellow leaves, and decrease photosynthesis. Pierced plant tissue welcomes in infection and disease more readily. The honeydew exuded from mealybugs also encourages mold growth on plants, and the honeydew attracts other insect pests, like ants. They’re quite a nuisance, but they are easy to get rid of if you know how to treat them. I will be focusing on the natural methods of control, involving no artificial pesticides, insecticides, or toxic chemicals.
Regardless of which following method you decide to use, it’s vital to replace the soil when you are treating for mealybugs. Mealybugs often lay their eggs in waxy sacs within the roots of an infested plant, so even if you only see them on the leaves, they are likely in the soil as well. It is best to take the plant out of the pot, brush off all the soil around the roots, throw away all the soil, and clean the pot thoroughly. It’s OK – buying more soil will be worth it.
A lot of people miss this step, which is the main reason the little buggers seem to come back.
If I were to just treat the leaves of this infected plant, once the egg sac hatches, all of my prior mealybug treatments would be deemed ineffective. This might be the leading cause to why a lot of people give up, then throw their plants away.
How do you know if you have mealybugs?
Aside from issues with water, light, nutrients, etc., plants will start to wilt or yellow when they are infested with mealybugs. Instead of jumping straight to adjusting your level of care with the plant, use it as an opportunity to check for a pest infestation. It may not be the case (thankfully), but it’s a sign to look out for.
There are several different species of mealybugs, but they generally look like the culprit above. But even if you know what the bugs look like, they sometimes hide out underneath white masses that look like pieces of cotton. It also helps to know how to identity what the egg sacs look like. (Click the pictures to enlarge.)
If you do find mealybugs, make sure you quarantine the plant until you have a chance to deal with it. Mealybugs can quickly spread from plant to plant. Once, I found mealybugs on more than a few plants that were sitting next to each other in a row.
Put it outside at night if it’s not colder than the cold hardiness the plant can take. Cold temperatures will encourage the mealybugs to retreat to the outside of the plant, making it easier to see them when you treat to get rid of them.
Alright, now let’s get into the methods!
Treating a mealybug infestation with alcohol involves manually removing them with 70% isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol), which can be sprayed directly onto the plant. I use a cotton swab to spot wipe away any mealybugs, making sure to check over the plant several times. It is important to power spray the plant with jet-streaming water once all the mealybugs have been removed.
Check out my YouTube tutorial on this method!
If you are worried about the alcohol hurting the plant, don’t worry, it won’t. But if you want to keep your peace of mind, you can cut it with a detergent.
PRO TIP: Do not spray alcohol on tender new growth.
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), a surfactant in most detergents, will actually help to kill off juvenile mealybugs, which are almost invisible to the naked eye. Most detergents have this, but a good biodegradable and organic one would be Sal Suds, by good ‘ole Dr. Bronner’s.
Dr. Bronner’s Fair Trade and Organic Sal Suds, 16 oz.
Alcohol + Detergent
This is the most thorough method that I have found in treating for mealybugs. Combining efforts is always a good idea. You can make a soapy alcohol solution of equal parts 70% isopropyl alcohol, Sal Suds, and water. Use the same technique as seen in my YouTube video above!
Neem oil is a naturally occuring pesticide found in seeds from the neem tree. Neem oil is non-toxic… well, non-toxic to humans, pets, and plants. But it is toxic to our mealybug nemeses. A neem oil foliar spray will coat the leaves of the infested plant, entering the vascular tissue of the plant. The next time the mealybugs feel like taking an unwelcome snack on your plant, the neem oil will coat their breathing holes and suffocate them to death. Righteous! It also prevents larvae maturation and can even stop mating behavior. Try the neem oil below if you’re feeling up for it!
Ladybugs are natural predators to mealybugs, among other pests. Call around to see if any of your local nurseries or hardware stores sell them in bulk. Then you can release them onto your plant to begin the mealy-ladybug battle.¹ If you can’t find them locally, order them here:
If your battle turns into a cold-blooded war, you can bring out the big guns! The mealybug is no match to the Australian Ladybird Beetle, Cryptolaemus montrouzieri, a.k.a. “Mealybug Destroyer”!
All of the above methods can be used to treat aphids as well.
Some other common plant insect pests include spider mites, scale, whiteflies, and ants. Ants won’t necessarily harm your plants, but it is important to keep any ant population in check, because ants farm both aphids and mealybugs. They share a symbiotic relationship. The mealybugs and aphids exude a honeydew sap, which the ants find quite delicious. The ants in turn help protect the aphids and mealybugs. Ants like dry, warm conditions, so be sure to not let your pots outside become bone dry (even succulents).
A few years ago, I noticed a bunch of ants in a succulent planter box I had outside that I didn’t water too often. Left untreated, I ended up with a tiny farm of aphids shortly thereafter. Needless to say, that was my first experience dealing with an aphid crisis. In the end, I won.
Now, when I notice ants, I force them to scurry right away. I have tips on that too if you care to know!
While I was doing my drainage hole video, I didn’t even realize this pot had mealybugs, until I was editing the video and saw the bottom of the pot on my computer screen! I quickly took care of it after that! If you look closely, you can see a mass of mealybug eggs collected at the bottom of the drainage hole.
Well, I hope this helps! But I especially hope it helps save plant lives!
There is no need to throw out plants when you find mealybugs (or aphids) on them! Plant lives matter too! We don’t euthanize our pets when they have fleas, do we? Treat plants the same way. Just because there’s an unsightly bug on your plant, doesn’t mean you can’t fix it. At least try. And as always, I’m available for any questions!
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¹ I absolutely love this post from Practically Functional on releasing ladybugs in the garden. Not only is Jessi knowledgeable with great photo documentation, but she is so poetic about her experience.
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