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Common Houseplant Bugs

By: Jennifer HowellJennifer Howell
Don't let bugs take over your beloved houseplants! Here's how to control insect pests on indoor plants.

Ways to deal with housplant bugs

It only takes one or two insects to turn into an infestation. They likely tagged along from the greenhouse or from outside while the plant was on summer vacation outdoors. They may have even hitched a ride on your clothes or hands. Keep your houseplants healthy and clean and inspect them often to nip any potential insect infestation in the bud. It is always easier to prevent a bug problem than to cure it. But if you do get an infestation, here are a few products that can help control bugs on your houseplants:

Soapy water

A strong spray of soapy water (1 tsp. of Ivory dishwashing liquid in a quart of water) will dislodge many insects, and clean any excretions left behind. Let the suds linger on the leaves for a few minutes, then rinse with clean water.

Contact insecticide

There are many foliar sprays available that kill insect pests; I look for ones that are natural and safer to use, such as insecticidal soap, neem oil and pyrethrin-based sprays. For some insects, a horticultural oil is more effective. It coats the insect’s shell and suffocates it. Leaf shines can have a similar effect.

Systemic insecticide

These bug killers are absorbed into the plant tissues either through a granular formulation applied to the roots or a foliar spray. Once in the plant’s system, they kill any insects that feed on the sap or leaves. Systemic insecticides work well, but I’ll warn you some can smell strong for a few weeks.

Products To Solve Bug Problems:
Insecticidal Soap
Neem Oil
Pyrethrin Insect Killer
Horticultural Oil
Systemic Insecticide Granules

Common houseplant bugs

Read on to learn about four notorious houseplant bugs to watch out for and the best way to tell these unwanted guests goodbye. 

Symptom of mealybug on houseplant: Mealybugs move around as juveniles, but as adults they become immobile, covered in a cottony covering, where they lay their eggs.

Mealybugs

What they look like
Mobile juveniles look like little crustaceans with a white, round body and legs. Adults are encased by a cottony covering that is impervious to most foliar sprays. Often found on new growth and in the crevices between leaves and stems.

What they do
Feeding will cause yellowing and eventual death of leaves.

How to get rid of them
Manual removal is most effective — use a damp cloth to wipe off leaves and stems (if you are squeamish, wear latex gloves — it’s an icky job!) Use a cotton swab soaked in rubbing alcohol to clean out crevices and wipe off individual mealybugs. Neem oil and horticultural oils can be helpful for control.

Typical victims
Pothos, philodendron and orchids


Spider mite webs on houseplant leaves:  This areca palm shows stipling typical of spider mite damage on its fronds, as well as webbing between the leaves.

Spider mites

What they look like
Tiny, barely visible insects look like salt-and-pepper grains on the underside of the leaves. Big infestations will have visible webbing between the leaves and stems.

What they do
Spider mites have sucking mouthparts that cause the foliage to be stippled with tiny yellow spots. New foliage may be deformed, leaves may die, and the plant’s color may be faded and dull.

How to get rid of spider mites
Washing the plant is the simplest method, as the adults are easily dislodged. It may take regular monthly washings to keep the population down. Insecticide sprays and systemics are effective against spider mites, and I have also found leaf shine can slow them down.

Typical victims   
Palms, dracaena and croton


Symptoms of scale on a Schefflera leaves:  Sticky honeydew is visible on this schefflera leaf, along with the oval, brown discs covering the adult scale insect.

Scale

What they look like
Adults are hidden by oval shells, often brown, usually along stems. Juveniles are mobile but hard to see. A telltale sign is the appearance of honeydew, a shiny, sticky excretion left by the insect.

What they do
Severe infestations will deplete the plant and foliage will begin to die. Honeydew may make the plant sticky and collect dust, as well as drip to the floor.

How to get rid of them
Scale is a tough one to combat, as the shells protect the insect and its eggs very well. Systemic insecticides are effective but slow to see results. Horticultural oils are helpful, as well as trimming off any branches with a heavy infestation.

Typical victims
Ficus, hibiscus and umbrella plant


Yellow sticky trap for fungus gnats in a houseplant pot: Yellow sticky traps can help control adult fungus gnats.

Fungus gnats

What they look like
Fungus gnats are tiny little gray flies with thin bodies, long antennae, and see-through wings. Larvae live in the soil and are small white grubs with black heads.

What they do
Larvae feed on fungus and organic matter in the soil, sometimes damaging root hairs of smaller plants. Adults take flight, especially after watering, becoming a nuisance that can be extremely annoying.

How to get rid of fungus gnats
The best way to eliminate them is to keep the potting mix drier, so water less. Yellow sticky traps are effective at catching the flying adults, while Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) bacteria will attack the larvae. See 8 Ways to Get Rid of Fungus Gnats for more tips and helpful products.

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Published: Jan. 31, 2022
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