Pesky Plant Pests

Warning: This post is full of gross creepy things. But it’s also full of cute (old!) pictures of my hubby and I on our honeymoon, so…balance, right?

June 20, 2010. Andres and I walked down the aisle, said “I do,” kissed, and the next day, headed to Tulum, Mexico to celebrate the beginning of our life together. While there, we stayed at a gorgeous bed and breakfast out in the jungle. As we were given a tour of the facilities upon our arrival, we thought we must have arrived in paradise.

Our room was decorated in quaint, authentic Mexican décor, and was surrounded by several small, private swimming pools. A hammock swung lazily on our private porch. A masseuse could be scheduled to give you a private massage in a beautiful jungle villa.

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Private pool at our B&B! A dream!
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Fresh fruit every morning for breakfast
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Beautiful artwork in our room

It was great…’til nighttime. Turns out our room had no air-conditioning. June in Tulum can be described in two words: hot and humid. Andres and I laid in our bed, covers kicked off, ceiling fan going full blast, just trying to feel one tiny gust of cool air. Sleep felt impossible.

As soon as I dozed off, Andres woke me, speaking in a quiet, overly-calm voice. “Allison. Wake up and get out of bed.” I sleepily sat up, wondering what was going on. After only a moment, Andres told me to go back to sleep, that everything was fine. It wasn’t until the next morning that he told me a cockroach had been on my pillow, approaching my face.

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A cockroach caught in our room

During our honeymoon our days were full of fantastic memories – beach walking, snorkeling with tropical fish, Andres losing his wedding ring in the deeps of the ocean (that’s another story for another day), delicious food, treats from street vendors, shopping at the little local shops. Yes, the days were wonderful.

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Beach days!
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Tacos at a road-side stand for dinner – YUM!

But the nights… Oh yes, the nights brought many shudder-worthy pests. Our room was actually equipped with a “pik-stick” (like elderly people might use to pick up something our of reach on the floor) to collect pests and keep them at arm’s length.

While there, we saw more than our share of cockroaches, giant spiders with glinty eyes, a scorpion in the eves over our bed, and a GIANT whip scorpion (which looks like a humongous spider) in our shower.

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Oh hey, scorpion in the eves above my bed…
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This is a terrible picture, but this is a whip scorpion…in my shower…and then it charged at me and all of Mexico heard me scream.

Let me tell you: pests like that have a way of stealing the romance RIGHT out of your honeymoon. (But they also give you HILARIOUS stories to tell later!)

Unfortunately, pests are just a part of life. And, when you have houseplants, pests just come along with the territory. The important thing is that you understand plant pests before you get them. If you have this understanding, you can more effectively treat them before they do some serious damage to your plant family.
Aphids.png

Aphids are one of the most commonly found houseplant pests. These insects pierce plants with their mouthparts and drink out the sap inside the plant. After eating, the excrete a sticky, sweet “honeydew.” This leaves a residue on plants, which then attracts other pests, especially ants, or can even create a black, sooty mold.

What pest looks like:

  • small (1/8 inch), soft-bodied, and pear-shaped; can be green, yellow, brown, red or black in color
  • adults are typically wingless, but if populations are high, they can grow wings
  • two whip-like antennae on the tip of the head and a pair of tube-like structures projecting backwards on their hindquarters

 Signs of pest:

  • sticky residue (honeydew) on plants
  • black, sooty mold caused by honeydew
  • presence of insects

 Treating pest:

  • prune off any infected areas on the plant
  • spray plant with a strong stream of water, knocking off most of the population
  • crush remaining bugs between fingers

Common Whitefly.png

The common whitefly is a nasty little pest that don’t discriminate when it comes to what type of houseplants they infest. They lay their eggs on the undersides of leaves while they eat; the eggs hatch in less than a week. Once hatched, the nymphs act similar to scale: they crawl a short distance, plant themselves, and suck the plant until they go into a dormant phase. They remain dormant for approximately two weeks, before emerging as adults and beginning the process over again.

What the pest looks like:

  • moderately small (1/16 inch); moth-like insects with white wings and short antenna

Signs of pest:

  • stunted plant growth, leaf yellowing
  • sticky residue (honeydew) on plants
  • black, sooty mold caused by honeydew
  • presence of insects

Treating pest:

  • yellow sticky traps (as they are attracted to the color yellow)
  • spray plant with a strong stream of water, knocking off most of the population

Fungus Gnats.png

Fungus gnats are common in homes with houseplants – especially where humidity/moisture is high. They look similar to fruit flies, and many times are mistaken as such. While the adults are mostly just a pain in the butt, the larvae (which are laid in the soil) can damage tender plant roots.

What pest looks like:

  • adults: grayish-black; somewhat resemble mosquitos with long legs and one pair of clear wings; 1/8 inch long.
  • larvae: shiny black head; long whitish (or transparent) body; about 1/4 inch long.

Signs of pest:

  • sudden wilting, poor growth, or yellowing of a plant
  • presence of insects

Treating pest:

  • sticky traps
  • add sand to the top of the soil
  • top soil with cinnamon (which I have tried, and found successful)
  • spraying soil with a 3 parts water: 1 part hydrogen peroxide mixture to kill larvae


Mealy Bugs.png

While mealybugs are an unarmored insect, they are difficult to control because they move. This means that if another plant is touching an infected plant, there’s the possibility that the mealybugs will transfer from one plant to another. Mealybugs are another species that feed on the sap of a plant; they insert their long sucking mouthparts into the plant and draw out the sap.

What pest looks like:

  • small (1/10-1/14 inch), oval-shaped, white or gray in color
  • covered in a mealy wax
  • active early on but move little once they begin feeding

Signs of pest:

  • in small numbers, damage might not be apparent
  • leaf yellowing and curling
  • sticky residue (honeydew) on plants
  • black, sooty mold caused by honeydew
  • presence of insects

Treating pest:

  • prune out light infestations
  • dab insects with a Q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol
  • do not overwater or over-fertilize, as mealybugs are attracted to plants with high nitrogen levels and soft growth areas

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Scale is a sap-sucking insect that attaches itself to plants – specifically twigs, leaves, and branches. They are immobile and many times can be mistaken for simply a bump on a branch. Because of this, an infestation can occur unnoticed. They also secrete honeydew, which can attract other pests.

What pest looks like:

  • oddly-shaped, immobile pest that resemble bumps on a plant
  • armored scale: small (1/8 inch), secrete a hard protective covering over themselves; immobile; do not secrete honeydew
  • soft scale: larger (up to1/2 inch), secrete a waxy film that is part of their body able to move (but rarely do); secrete large amounts of honeydew

Signs of pest:

  • small bumps on twigs, leaves, branches, etc. where scale insects are attached, drinking sap out of the plant
  • sticky residue (honeydew) on plants (soft scale only)
  • black, sooty mold caused by honeydew (soft scale only)
  • presence of insects

Treating pest:

  • prune off any infected areas on the plant
  • pick off the scale by hand, or rub off using a solution of water and alcohol – if infected area is small
  • apply neem oil with cotton ball – if infected area is small

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I had a small spider mite outbreak recently. I had a calathea that had struggling, but was on the mend; one day when I was checking her out, examining her leaves, I noticed some webbing. At first, I thought perhaps it had been a while since I looked at her, but then I saw tiny little spiders moving on the webbing.

I freaked. I checked every plant near her and then I did what every good plant parent does: I took pictures. Looking at those tiny spiders up close through the camera lens was totally gross and unnerving. I didn’t know what to do…so I tossed the whole plant.

Spider mites are a concern to plants because they are yet another sap-sucking pest. They live on the underside of leaves; they feed by piercing the leaves and drinking the sap. Feeding marks appear as light dots on the leaves.

What pest looks like:

  • spider mites are not true insects, but are classified as arachnids, a relative of “real” spiders
  • adults are reddish brown or a pale color, oval-shaped, and tiny (about 1/50 inch long)
  • immature spider mites look similar, just smaller

Signs of pest:

  • may appear to be “dust” on the bottom of leaves
  • appear most in hot, dry conditions
  • large populations of spider mites are accompanied by a fine webbing
  • feeding marks (light dots) on leaves
  • presence of spider mites

Treating pest:

  • spray off leaves either outdoors or in a shower; leave plant in a humid environment to help rid of spider mites (they hate humidity!)
  • prune off any infected areas and any webbing, and discard of it in the trash.
  • entire plant may need to be disposed of infection is too severe

Keep in mind that chemical pesticides can actually encourage the spread of spider mites by killing of beneficial insects that prey on the mites. Spider mites are also known to quickly develop a resistance to various pesticides. Use these products with caution!
Thrips.png

Thrips are a pest that damages plants by drinking their juices and scraping at fruits, flowers, and leaves. They are a commonly found pest in greenhouses and indoor/outdoor gardens.

What pest looks like:

  • very small (less than 1/25 inch); straw-colored or black and slender; two pairs of feathery wings
  • thrips are extremely active and feed in large groups

Signs of pest:

  • leaves turn pale, splotchy, and slivery, then die
  • injured plants are discolored, scarred, and deformed
  • presence of insects, typically in groups

Treating pest:

  • discard any infested plants by securely bagging and putting in the trash
  • blue sticky traps
  • wash plant with a smothering insecticidal soaps made of naturally-occurring plant oils and fats
  • apply neem oil with cotton ball

Thrips tend to congregate on the underside of leaves and where leaves attach to the stem; when treating a plant for thrips, focus especially on these areas. Also, thrips especially seem to like philodendrons. In these plants, a sign of their presence is a yellowing of the leaves.

A few items to note:

  • There are many products available on the market for treating each of these pests. Many of them have mixed reviews. Since I, myself, have never tried any of them and prefer to use more organic methods, I have not discussed these products in this blog.
  • When using neem oil, be sure to read the package and dilute, dilute, dilute! If you don’t, you can actually suffocate your plant and cause more damage than the pest itself.
  • With any infestation, it is vital that you quarantine your plant as soon as you notice a pest. This will allow you to treat the plant without running the risk of the pest spreading to other plants. In my home, I actually move the plant to a room all by itself. (Since my house is always in the process of renovations, I move the infected plant into our “construction room.”)

If you want to learn more about controlling these, as well as other, pests that frequently attack houseplants, check out these helpful resources:

How to Identify Common Houseplant Pests – By Homestead Brooklyn

Houseplant Pests – By Planet Natural

**Special thanks to my friend Devoney Mills, manager at Stump in German Village, for her willingness to share her personal experience (and experiences of Stump customers) as I developed this blog. Her expertise and knowledge has truly been priceless!

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All of these creepy pests give me the willies! Gross! So, one might ask, what can you do to prevent these pests from ever entering your home in the first place? Be sure to check in next time for these answers and more!

– the {house}plant momma

 

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