Have you ever discovered a substance on your plant that looks very similar to white cotton? This could very well be evidence of a mealybug infestation. Quite common indoors and in areas with warmer growing conditions, mealybugs are tiny, soft-bodied wingless insects that belong to the family Pseudococcidae. In lower numbers, they do not do great damage. However, in larger quantities, they literally can suck the life from your plant. Mealybugs are especially problematic among orchids and can be controlled with a variety of natural insecticidal soaps and organic methods.
Dealing with a Mealybug Problem
Mealybugs tend to average up to one-quarter of an inch in length, with their bodies consisting of segments covered in a white or grey waxy substance. Smaller crawlers are light yellow and are not covered in wax. Currently, there are over 275 different species of mealybugs within the United States. This makes specific identification at home is next to impossible.
Adult females will lay on average around 500 eggs in a sac on the underside of leaves. These sacs can resemble downy mildew, given their cotton-like appearance. Egg laying will continue for approximately two weeks, after which point the female mealybug will die. The eggs can be expected to hatch within three weeks. And, the new mealybugs will be seeking out feeding sites on the plant immediately. While feeding, the mealybugs produce a type of honeydew substance that leaves behind a sticky residue. Once on the plant, it encourages the growth of mold. The bugs themselves feed by inserting their mouthparts into the leaves of the plant and sucking out the vital sap from within. High numbers of mealybugs present within a plant will be noticeable due to leaf yellowing and plant weakness.
Getting Rid of Mealybugs
There are several methods you can use to get rid of an overabundance of mealybugs.
Climate Control (if you can)
To begin, they generally cannot survive colder conditions and you will only find them over the course of winter indoors or in warmer greenhouse-type growing spaces. To control mealybugs in these spaces or during the warm season, we recommend pruning any infested parts of your plant. You can also spot treat small plant sections with rubbing alcohol to kill and dry up any mealybugs already present.
Additionally, since high nitrogen content and crops with soft vegetation draw mealybugs in, take care to avoid overwatering and over-fertilization of your plants.
Furthermore, investing in beneficial insects is a fantastic way to improve the health of your garden as well as to avoid many pest problems, including mealybugs, in the future.
If all previous methods for prevention and eradication have failed, you can always treat your crops with neem oil or a botanical insecticide or insecticidal soap, all of which are much safer than chemical pesticides.
While these methods are safer, they still have the potential to disrupt the delicate balance of your garden. Therefore, use this sparingly and as a last option.
Mealybugs are just another example of a notoriously bothersome pest. Almost every gardener has had exposure to the mealybug and we have all had to find the best way to avoid encountering them again, year after year. You will find the methods that work best for you, your growing setup, and your specific plants, just be patient and keep trying the various options we’ve recommended until you find the right combination for you.