It’s happened to everyone with houseplants or a garden at some point. One day, you look at your plants and notice that there are small white bugs. Sometimes, you might see one or two. If you’re very unlucky, they’ll be everywhere.
But what are these white bugs? How can you get rid of them? Can you stop them from coming back? Here’s everything you need to know about how to get rid of little white bugs on plants.
Table of Contents
- Little White Bugs on Plants: What Are They?
- What Plants Do They Live on?
- How Do They Damage Plants?
- 5 Ways to Treat Little White Bugs on Plants
- How to Prevent Little White Bugs from Coming Back
Little White Bugs on Plants: What Are They?
There are a few types of little white bugs that you might see on your plants, but the most common are mealybugs.
If you have mealybugs, the first thing you might notice is what looks like white fluffy cotton on your plants. This cottony growth is actually mealybug eggs. The female usually lays eggs in March and April. And they lay a lot of eggs – about 7,000.
The eggs hatch in April and May. The female larvae are visible on the top of the leaves while the males live under the leaves. After about three wells, they shed their skins. Males pupate in late summer and emerge as adults in September.
In August, the females mature. They mate in September, and the process starts again.
Mealybugs can seemingly come out of nowhere. They can be present in the soil you use or you may inadvertently introduce them when you bring home a new plant.
Mealybugs are pretty easy to identify. Once they mature, they latch onto a plant and secrete wax, which makes them look dusty or as if they’ve been sprinkled with flour. Over time, this wax gets thicker and the bugs and the plant can start looking fluffy and white.
Mealybugs are not harmful to people, although some people are sensitive to the waxy covering, and it may irritate the skin. That said, they are ugly and a little creepy looking, and can cause significant damage to your plant. It’s best to get rid of them as soon as possible.
What Plants Do They Live on?
Just about any plant is at risk for developing mealy bugs, and they can easily spread from plant to plant. Those that are most at risk for significant damage are plants with soft stems and leaves, like amaryllis, begonias, African violets, and orchids.
That said, mealybugs can also infest succulents, pothos, ZZ plants, and just about anything they are exposed to. They thrive in temperatures between 70 and 90 degrees (21-32°C) but if you have indoor plants, you can see them at any time of year.
How Do They Damage Plants?
Once mealy bugs latch onto your plant, they don’t move very much. They just settle in and piece the plant with their mouths, then feed on the sap. This causes significant damage to the plant, causing the leaves to yellow and wilt.
Mealybug waste also causes problems for the plant. The waste, called mealybug honeydew, is sticky. It attracts other pests and can cause mold.
5 Ways to Treat Little White Bugs on Plants
The only good thing about mealybugs is that they’re easy to kill, though the process is a bit tedious. Here are five home remedies to try.
1. Dish soap
Mix dish soap and warm water in a spray bottle and spray down your plants, including the tops and bottoms of the leaves, the stems, and the top of the soil. It’s best to do this in the evening. Allow it to dry overnight, then rinse the plants in the morning.
Repeat this every evening until all of the mealybugs are gone. If you don’t have dish soap, you can also use liquid hand soap or shampoo. You can also use more soap as needed to make the mixture stronger.
2. Rubbing alcohol
Using rubbing alcohol is effective, but a little time-consuming. This approach works best if you catch them early before they have spread all over your plant.
Use a paintbrush of a sponge and dip it in rubbing alcohol. Then, apply directly to any cottony nests or adult mealybugs you can find. For bad infestations, you can spray the entire plant, but generally, rubbing alcohol is better used as a spot treatment.
Examine the entire plant and remove as many mealybugs as possible. Then, rinse the entire plant with water, making sure you get into any small crevices. You may see some chemical burns as the plant grows, but this is generally not enough to damage the plant.
3. Neem Oil
Neem oil is great because it helps remove the sticky honeydew from the leaves. If you’re dealing with a bad infestation, you can spray the neem oil to cover the entire plant. For a more controlled application, use a cotton ball to wipe down the leaves and stems.
Another reason that Neem oil is such a great choice is because it acts as an insecticide and a fungicide, killing insects on contact and soaking in, systemically treating the plant. According to the EPA, Neem oil is safe to use on edible plants, too.
Believe it or not, for light infestations, a spray of water might be enough to do the trick. Fill up a spray bottle and use a concentrated setting to create more force. For larger plants, take them in the shower or use a sprayer in the kitchen sink to blast away the cottony nests.
5. Insect Spray
Commercial insect spray is fine, but you can make an easy homemade version that’s a little better for the environment. Combine a small onion, a bulb of garlic, and a teaspoon of cayenne pepper in a food processor. Add it to a quart of water and strain. Then, add it to a spray bottle with a tablespoon of dish soap or shampoo and spray your plant.
There are other simple sprays you can make at home, too:
- One part apple cider vinegar to four parts water
- 50 drops peppermint, orange, or lemon essential oil spray in two ounces water
- 2 cups chopped tomato leaves and one-quart water
- 2 tablespoons hot sauce, 3 drops dish soap, and a quart of water
- 1 tablespoon cooking oil, 1 tablespoon baking soda, 1 tablespoon dish soap, and a gallon of water
How to Prevent Little White Bugs from Coming Back
Once you get rid of a mealybug infestation, you’ll probably want to know what you can do to stop them from ever coming back. Here are a few ideas.
1. Check the soil
Mealybugs can live and reproduce in the soil, so if you have a houseplant that keeps getting infected, no matter what you do, the soil might be the problem.
In this case, you can try removing the top inch of the soil and replacing it with fresh potting soil. Or, if you want to be very cautious, repot the plant in fresh soil in a new pot. Dispose of the old soil and be sure to wash the pot out thoroughly before reusing it. Wipe the inside down with rubbing alcohol, then rinse thoroughly.
2. Quarantine new plants
Every time you bring a new plant home, keep it isolated for a few weeks to make sure you didn’t accidentally bring in any pests with it. Most big box stores and nurseries have a lot of plants, and the possibility for infestations to spread is pretty great.
By quarantining new plants, you have time to inspect them and make sure they’re healthy, ensuring that nothing spreads to your other plants.
3. Encourage beneficial insects
If your mealybug infestation is outside, one of the best things you can do is encourage beneficial insects to live in your garden. Ladybugs will eat the eggs and nymphs and lace wigs will eat the adults.
4. Preventative Neem oil treatments
When you have repeated infestations, preventatively treating your plants with Neem oil can help keep them at bay. The Neem oil prevents the mealybugs from feeding and the oily texture coats eggs and crawlers and smothers them.
If you have little white bugs on your plants, there are a few things they can be, but mealybugs are one of the most common. These pests are easily recognizable. Their nests look like wisps of fine cotton, as when they mature, they produce wax that makes them look like fluff.
Mealybugs aren’t particularly hard to kill, but treating a large infestation is time-consuming. If you can catch them early, a blast of water is enough to get rid of the nests. Once they mature and spread, though, you have to carefully treat every leaf, stem, and soil to get rid of them.
There’s a chance that the little white bugs you see are not mealy bugs and maybe something else, like aphids. The good news is that the remedies we included here should be effective against most common pests.