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.
Disclosure: This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means I earn a small commission if purchased, at no additional cost to you. This is to simply offset the cost of running this website. Please note that all of the above statements are entirely my own, honest opinions that are derived from personal experience. I would never endorse such products if they didn’t work or if I didn’t see real, positive results. Buy with confidence!
Sometimes certain plants need haircuts. Just trims though. Like I tell my stylist, “No hack job please, just a light dusting”. I always hate removing material from the beloved plants that I spent so long watching grow into long luscious locks of greenery. But when necessary, it’s for the best. Pruning encourages bushier growth, and some plants can get lanky and lose their fullness. A lot of vine or trailing-type plants are susceptible to this, like Pothos/Epipremnum, Philodendron, Scindapsus, “Wandering Jew” (Tradescantia), etc. Which “Wandering Jew” am I referring to, exactly? The one with the identity crisis.
Here’s my spindly Tradescantia fluminensis ‘Variegata’ before its visit to the salon.
This plant was far too grown out, with almost no foliage at the top. It was rocking that balding hippie look.
So, I got to town with my pruning shears and took off the bulk of the outgrowth. I didn’t just throw out the pieces I cut off though (of course not!); I put them in water to root. Whenever I snip, I save.
It’s easy to propagate most plants in a bottle of water. No rooting hormone needed. All you need is a good pair of scissors like the ones below, a vessel that doesn’t leak, and a sunny windowsill.
Fiskars Steel Pruning Shears, $9.97
(The best pruning shears ever!)
I just so happened to have cuttings of the same plant that I had already propagated months prior, and I planted those at the same time as cutting off length at the bottom. This will help give it more immediate fullness, before new growth is encouraged.
This is how it came out immediately:
Then I waited.
About one month later…
Not too shabby!
Once the cuttings that I had previously propagated formed roots, I planted them to fill the plant out even more.
Just look at that fullness!
But wait, it gets better.
Another month goes by…
We’re back in business! The “Wandering Jew” is no longer wandering yonder. Of course, this process will need to be repeated in about a year or so.
Three month progress due to trimming to promote growth:
Let’s take a look at a little history of my Philodendron hederaceum ‘Brasil’. It’s been around the block a few times.
This is when I first got it. Full, large leaves, and healthy.
Then I drove it across the country from Philadelphia to California during the fall of 2016, and it ended up looking like this.
Sadness. Not only was this plant stressed from the move, but it was also suffering from lack of nutrients, water, light, and maintenance, e.g. pruning. If growing conditions are too dark, the stems will start to get spindly. It’s also important to trim off cuttings here and there to promote bushier growth. After a while the plant can get lanky. If you notice that any of your vines are growing significantly smaller leaves, it’s time for a trim.
So, I took off a ton of cuttings, and propagated them in water.
Some made their way into their own pots.
Now, every single propagation from the old pot is planted back together where they all originally came from, and it looks a little something like this.
Four years later, this is same exact plant. It’s been through a lot. It may not have as large of leaves as it did when I first got it, but it is full! I know it may seem counterintuitive, but this was achieved from cutting it back.
Recently, I propagated my Tradescantia spathacea, a.k.a. Moses-in-the-Cradle plant. As soon as I trimmed it in only two places, I was awarded with all of this immediate new growth!
So where do you cut? Wherever you see an aerial root, cut below the node. This will leave the internode sticking out from the plant you cut from, so feel free to cut it off right above the node at the bottom of the internode. When you stick the cutting in water, wherever there are aerial roots, roots will start to grow. Make sure the aerial roots maintain contact with water.
I’ve made a visual diagram for you. You can cut at either place where I drew the red lines on the stem. I would normally cut either one or the other, not both, but cutting both won’t hurt it. If I were to cut this particular stem, I would cut along the bottom red line and make sure that both of the aerial roots I’ve pointed out are under water.
Because I’m a plant nerd, I am fascinated by the science behind this. The main stem (apical meristem) of a plant contains the largest amount of the growth hormone, auxin, than anywhere else in the plant. This actually prohibits growth by any lateral buds, which maintains apical dominance. The buds and aerial roots are dormant. When you cut off a portion of the plant on the main stem, the auxin is no longer produced in that area, which breaks the dormancy of the rest of the plant and promotes bushier growth.
Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear about your adventures in plant cutting propagation!
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All photo rights belong to Cristie R. Kiley. Please ask permission before taking.
Disclosure: This post contains an Amazon affiliate link, which means I earn a small commission if purchased, at no additional cost to you. This is to simply offset the cost of running this website. Please note that all of the above statements are entirely my own, honest opinions that are derived from personal experience. I would never endorse such products if they didn’t work or if I didn’t see real, positive results. Buy with confidence!