How to Get Rid of Mealybugs on Succulent Plants
If you've found mealybugs on your succulents, you don't need to panic. While these pests can cause damage, they aren't untreatable. In this article, gardening expert and houseplant enthusiast Madison Moulton takes you through six simple steps to rid your succulents of their mealybug problem.
You may have noticed white, fluffy, cotton-like markings on your succulents or any other plants in your garden. On closer inspection, you may find these markings not static, but slowly moving in masses in a very ominous way. Those small insects are known as mealybugs.
Mealybugs are scale insects from the Pseudococcidae family that feed on a wide range of plants. They are particularly common indoors and in greenhouse environments, thriving in warm temperatures and high humidity.
These destructive insects attach themselves to juicy plant leaves to suck out the sap. In the process, they produce a waxy substance to protect them while they feed, giving them that cotton-like look. Some species also lay eggs in this protective layer, potentially hundreds.
Although a minor mealybug infestation is unlikely to destroy your succulents, their rapid reproduction will soon turn a small problem into a big one. As soon as you spot signs of a problem, it’s important to tackle it immediately before it spreads to other plants in your garden. If you don’t remedy it quickly, it can cause problems with your succulents, including plant death.
Signs of Mealybugs on Succulents
Mealybugs on their own can be difficult to spot on succulents. Their compact shapes and tight rosettes provide the perfect hiding places for any bugs looking to settle in. However, once they begin moving around and causing damage, you’ll be able to identify the problem quite quickly.
The most obvious sign of an infestation is the mealybugs themselves. Their soft white bodies stand out against most succulent leaves, making them easy to spot if you’re looking closely enough. You can also identify them by the substance they leave behind, creating a fluffy webbing that covers the center of the plant.
Another potential sign is the ants that follow mealybugs around. Although ants alone are not confirmation of a mealybug problem, you should inspect your plant more carefully if you discover an ant issue for signs of a wider problem.
Once a mealybug infestation has completely taken over your plants, you’ll also notice signs in the plant itself. Mealybugs damage the juicy leaves, causing spots of discoloration where problems appear. The leaves will begin to change color and will likely begin dropping off the plant, depending on the type of succulent you have.
As soon as you spot signs of a problem, it’s important to tackle it immediately before it spreads to other plants in your garden.
Getting Rid of Mealybugs
For minor infections, mealybug control on succulents is relatively simple. A few targeted applications and follow-ups will keep your succulents mealybug free for the foreseeable future. However, larger infestations require more attention to resolve the problem.
Follow these steps to start getting rid of mealybugs in your succulent garden. Keep in mind that not all steps are necessary – some are only required in the most severe cases.
Step 1: Isolate The Plants
The first step in controlling mealybugs (and any other pests or diseases) is to isolate the plant. Mealybugs can spread rapidly from one plant to another, eventually taking over an entire garden if not controlled. Isolation will allow you to remove the bugs before they become a bigger issue.
For succulents in containers, this process is simple. Move the pot to an isolated part of your outdoor space or to a room indoors with no other plants. Here, you can be sure the mealybugs have nowhere else to go, making their eradication much less stressful.
For succulents planted out in the garden, removal is slightly trickier. For minor mealybug issues, it’s best to treat the plants in the garden as removing and replanting can lead to further stress. But, if mealybugs are taking over, removal is the best way to stop the spread in its tracks.
When you move your succulents, try not to change their environmental conditions too much. Control of mealybugs can take a couple of weeks and in that time, factors like lack of sunlight or cold temperatures can do some serious damage. Keeping your succulents healthy during the process will help them bounce back far quicker when the mealybugs are gone.
Step 2: Spray Them Down
Once you’ve isolated the plant, get a head start on removing as many bugs as possible by spraying down the succulents. A spray of water will help dislodge any masses of bugs, allowing you to target the stubborn ones that remain.
When spraying your succulents, make sure you use a gentle stream of water. Depending on the species of succulent you have, a strong spray may knock some of the leaves off the plant. Some damaged leaves may drop off even with a gentle spray of water, but these would likely drop off anyway later on.
Since succulents are sensitive to overwatering and root rot, try to spray only the leaves were possible, especially if you have recently watered.
Step 3: Apply Rubbing Alcohol
Next, it’s time to tackle the bugs that are left. Although there are a number of treatment options you can consider, the one most succulent gardeners swear by is rubbing alcohol. Known as isopropyl alcohol, this will kill the mealybugs on contact, allowing you to wipe them off and stopping their spread.
Use 70% isopropyl alcohol for the best result, applied using a spray bottle. You can also dab some alcohol on a cotton swab to target the bugs individually, but due to their compact structure, it can be difficult to get them all this way.
Applied correctly, the alcohol won’t damage the plant, but it will seriously damage the mealybugs. Make sure you spray all parts of the plant, getting in between the leaves and around the stem, to kill them on contact.
Unfortunately, even if you’re very careful, you may not get all of them with this initial application. If you see a resurgence in the next couple of days or weeks, spray again until any mealybug signs are completely gone.
Step 4: Use Neem Oil
For those who don’t have rubbing alcohol on hand, there is another option you can try – neem oil. Commonly recommended as a natural treatment against a variety of pests, this substance suffocates mealybugs and prevents any eggs from hatching.
Make sure you use a low concentration of neem oil as high amounts can burn the leaves of your succulents. You can also add a few drops of dish soap to the solution for an additional layer of stickiness.
Be careful placing your plant in full sun once you’ve applied neem oil. Excess sunlight can scorch the leaves for a while once applied. Move them to an area with bright indirect light while they are being treated, moving the succulents back into full sun as soon as the mealybugs are gone.
Neem oil is typically used for minor infestations and as a preventative measure. It may not be as effective against severe mealybug issues. Repeat application will also be needed, as with rubbing alcohol, to make sure the problem is completely gone.
Step 5: Clean The Area Around The Plant
After dealing with the plant, it’s time to look at the area around it. Mealybugs don’t just hide out on the plants themselves, they are also great at hiding in cracks and crevices in furniture and around gardens, ready to pop out and attack. Part of the eradication process is removing these bugs too.
Clean the area around the plant with the same alcohol solution, spraying any furniture it may have been in contact with where possible. This is also a chance to inspect any potential surrounding plants for signs of a mealybug problem. The sooner you catch these outliers, the easier they will be to tackle.
If you’re worried that the mealybugs may be waiting in an area you haven’t quite covered, it’s also best to move your succulent to a new spot after you have finished treatment. This will help you identify whether the bugs are from the plant and soil or the surrounding area.
You don’t want to get stuck in a cycle of repeated treatments when new infestations appear as this can stress the plant and lead to its early demise.
Step 6: Repot If Needed
If the problem refuses to go away after following these steps, repotting is the final step you can take. As mealybugs can hide out in the soil, or even lay eggs in the soil that spread upwards from there, repotting is the best way to remove them completely.
When repotting, remove all the soil completely and wash the roots to get rid of any residual dirt. Then you can either scrub the pot with soap and water (remember, mealybugs are tricky to spot and can hide in the sneakiest of places), or you can simply plant them into a new, fresh container.
Even if this doesn’t eradicate the problem, it will reduce the level of infestation, making the other steps in the treatment process far more effective.
Left alone, mealybugs can wreak havoc on your succulent collection, spreading from there to the rest of your plants. It’s important to diagnose this issue early, and once identified, take quick action to prevent their spread. As long as you’ve followed the steps above, you should be well on your way to getting rid of these pesky pests for good.