Mealybugs might just be the very last thing you want to find lurking in your soil! These elusive pests spell nothing but trouble. When it comes to identifying and getting rid of them, though, you might not know where to start.
Mealybugs are common garden pests about the size of rice grains.
If you’re growing plants that are susceptible to mealybugs, It’s important to regularly inspect your soil for signs of an infestation, such as a white waxy substance they leave behind.
As a quick answer for you, using Neem oil and flushing out the roots of affected plants can often do the trick to get rid of mealybugs.
Do you struggle with mealybugs in your garden? Luckily for you, we have the answers you’re looking for! So, stick with us for a while to learn more about keeping your space safe from mealybugs.
What Do Soil Mealybugs Look Like?
Soil mealybugs are easy to identify once you know what you’re looking for.
Sometimes you’ll see the bugs themselves, while other times you’ll be clued in thanks to their egg sacs. They also leave behind a waxy substance that can be a dead giveaway of their presence.
Regardless of how you might discover them, all of the signs are pretty minuscule and require a watchful eye.
Soil Mealybugs Are The Size Of Rice Grains
“Soil mealybugs” is a catch-all phrase for many different species within the same genus. These mealybugs are often named after the plants they target, such as Rhizoecus hibisci (you guessed it- hibiscus!).
Besides targeting different plants, the only real difference between soil mealybugs is their size. Adult females range between 1/16 and ⅛ of an inch long, roughly the size of rice grains.
They Have Bluish-White Coloring
With a color that is just slightly off-white, you’ll find a bluish tone to soil mealybugs. This is fitting because it matches the blues they can bring to gardeners!
Soil Mealybugs Gather On Roots
Soil mealybugs gather on the roots of their preferred plants, hence their alternative name of “root mealybugs”.
Root mealybugs work by piercing holes into plant roots and sucking out the sap that gets secreted. This can eventually kill your plant if you don’t catch the infestation soon enough!
Likewise, female soil mealybugs lay egg sacs around the rootball.
They May Leave A White Waxy Substance Behind
Obviously, mealybugs are hard to spot because of how small they are. If you have perlite in your potting soil, it becomes even harder due to their similar appearances.
Although it’s a little gross, there’s another way to discover their presence- looking at the stuff they leave behind. You’ll likely find clusters of white wax throughout the soil and powdery wax on your plant’s roots.
You’ll Find More Mealybugs In The Winter
Furthermore, mealybugs can lay over 500 small yellow eggs at a time, packaged up in little sacs. Yikes!
That being said, egg-laying slows down when the temperatures are higher. This means you have to be extra vigilant as temperatures drop.
A new generation develops within a month in the cooler months and within three months in the warmer months.
Finding Egg Sacs When You Water
If you have a root mealybug infestation, you may not notice the mealybugs themselves. That’s part of why they’re such an annoying pest!
But you may see little white specs floating in the pot saucer or pooled at the top of your pot while watering your plant. Gross!
While the specs aren’t mealybugs themselves, they’re empty egg sacs that are light enough to float when they come into contact with water.
This is a huge sign that you might have a mealybug infestation that needs to be taken care of!
How To Get Rid Of Mealybugs In Soil
So you’ve noticed some mealybugs in your soil. Ugh, great. Now what?
It’s not the end of the world! There are plenty of things you can do to get rid of mealybugs in your soil.
Regularly Inspect Your Plant’s Soil
Regardless of if you’re on the lookout for mealybugs or not, it’s always a good idea to inspect your plant’s soil. So many potential pests could be lurking!
But if you know that your garden is prone to mealybugs, then regularly inspecting your plant’s soil is vital. Since soil mealybugs hide in soil…well…you get the idea! Inspecting under the leaves may be great for aphids, but won’t do you much good in this scenario.
Many gardeners stick a finger a couple of inches into the soil to see how wet it is before watering. You can simply add an additional step to this routine and look a little closer.
Discard Plants That Are Too Heavily Impacted
At some point, throwing in the towel is your best bet. Eventually, there’s no coming back from a serious infestation, and it’s not worth risking the mealybugs spreading to other roots in your garden.
Even if your plant is isolated in a pot, that real estate could be better utilized with a healthy plant as opposed to one that is dying.
Insecticidal Soap Rinse Can Get Rid Of Mealybugs
Insecticidal soaps are especially effective at suppressing younger nymphs who have less wax accumulation.
This will help stop the life cycle in its tracks and avoid further infestation.
Avoid pyrethroid insecticides. They’re not as effective and can be harmful to natural enemies of mealybugs.
The insecticide dinotefuran is best used on landscape plants, while imidacloprid is better for houseplants. Do your research on the specific use for ANY product you use, though!
Dousing Soil With Neem Oil Can Work
Neem oil comes from the nuts of Neem trees and is considered a natural insecticide. Its magic is thanks to a compound found in the nuts called Azadirachtin.
Neem oil is an appetite suppressor and growth inhibitor. In other words, it doesn’t immediately eliminate mealybugs. Instead, it works slowly to weaken them.
Dousing soil with Neem oil works because your plant will absorb the Azadirachtin from the oil. Therefore, when the mealybugs chow down on the roots of your plants- they’re in trouble!
Neem oil also wards against fungal diseases like root rot, so you truly can’t go wrong using it.
Flush Out The Roots In A Shower
A simple way to get rid of mealybugs in the soil is to flush out the roots in a shower.
Carefully remove your plant from the pot, gently keeping the roots intact and avoiding damaging them. Dispose of the rest of the soil in your pot in the trash. Don’t put it in your compost or save it for future use- for obvious reasons!
Now set your hose nozzle to the “shower” setting. Use the highest water pressure that your roots can withstand, and give them a good thorough shower! Some plants will require you to be more careful if they have a delicate root system, while others can get pounded pretty hard.
You want to rid the roots of soil completely and then carefully inspect them to make sure no mealybugs are hanging on. Repot with fresh soil and you’re good to go!
Fully Remove All Soil And Repot Your Plants
Similar to the tip above, repotting your mealybug-infested plant is sometimes (and often) your best- and only- option.
Dump all the soil and hose off the pot in case any mealybugs are holding onto the pot for dear life. Don’t forget to rinse the pot saucer too!
Clean off the roots and repot with fresh soil. You should be good to go!
Take A Cutting Of The Mother Plant To Propagate
Taking a cutting of the mother plant is a great way to save your plant from its mealybug infestation.
Propagating plants means that you will be creating a new plant that is an exact genetic replica of the mother plant. This method is often used in plant breeding when favorable genes are found. But it’s also common amongst home growers, whether they’re saving a plant from an infestation or simply have a plant that they love!
Take a cutting that’s at least 4-6 inches long, snipping with clean shears right beneath a node. Nodes are little bumps in the stem where roots will happily develop.
Now you have two options. You can do one of the following:
- Place your cutting in water to hydroponically propagate roots before planting
- Dip the bottom of your cutting in rooting hormone and plant it right away
Since you’re trying to save a plant you love, feel free to take many cuttings and try out both methods of propagation! When planting directly, strip the bottom few inches of leaves so you don’t bury any.
Be sure to keep the soil moist- but not damp- while your cutting develops roots.
Soak The Roots In Hot Water For 10 Minutes
Sometimes even a strong shower doesn’t quite cut it when it comes to these annoying, destructive pests that we call mealybugs. Bringing out the big guns is a good course of action to take if you’ve tried other methods to no avail!
First, run the water in your sink or tub until it turns hot. Plug it up and fill it! Then remove your plant from its pot, once again, being careful not to disturb the roots too much.
Set a timer and soak the roots in the hot water for 10 minutes. You’ll have to sit there the whole time to hold the rest of the plant up. Listening to some music, enjoying a podcast, or talking on the phone will help the time pass more quickly. Although, some alone time to reflect is never a bad thing!
Use Preventative Measures
The best way to treat a mealybug infection is to avoid it in the first place!
Don’t buy any plants without thoroughly inspecting them first. You don’t want to bring any pests into your home or garden, especially ones that can spread.
You can also use Neem oil preventatively. You don’t need to see an active infestation in order to use it- it will keep the mealybugs away to begin with.
Wash out old pots and sterilize your gardening equipment to avoid potentially spreading an infection that you don’t know about.
When All Else Fails, Import Mealybug Predators
Mealybug destroyers are a kind of ladybug that prey on mealybugs. Nature always has a way of keeping the ecosystem in check!
Every beetle larva can consume over 250 mealybug nymphs – or over 1,000 mealybug eggs – before pupating!
Mealybug destroyers do best at higher temperatures and humidities. If you find your plants infested during a cold, dry spell, mealybug destroyers might not be able to keep up during the winter months.
After you’ve imported your mealybug destroyers, there are three things you can do to help them out:
- Avoid using insecticides as much as possible.
- Keep ant colonies under control.
- Grow flowers (insectary plants) to provide pollen and nectar to your beetles.
So, How Do You Import Ladybugs?
Ladybugs are an absolute must-have for any organic gardener. They’re predators of many pests including aphids, mites, mealybugs, and more.
All in all, ladybugs play an important role in the ecosystem, and having some around will do wonders!
How To Take Care Of Your Ladybugs
You may be wondering how to keep your ladybugs from flying away. There are a couple of different tips and tricks to make sure they stick around and live happy lives!
- Keep them in the fridge until you’re ready to release them.
- Only release them at dusk.
- Spray your plants with water where you’re going to release them.
- Release them slowly over the course of a few days instead of all at once.
- Put them right on the infected plant.
- Keep respraying your plant to keep it wet.
- Buy a house for your ladybugs. Keep water and some dried fruit in the house.
If you follow all of these steps, you shouldn’t have any trouble keeping your ladybugs around!
Common Plants That Mealybugs Feed On
Mealybugs target a lot of different plants but have a particular appetite for certain species. It’s important to be aware of the risks if you grow any of the plants below!
Be sure to do additional research to check if your plants are on mealybugs’ menus.
We have an article that goes over the 6 plants that mealybugs love, but it also lists plants that these bugs hate, which could keep them away.
While you already know what citrus fruit is, you may not know exactly what distinguishes it. Citrus trees produce fruit with thick skin and pulp on the inside.
They tend to be evergreen shrubs or trees with fragrant five-petaled flowers.
Perhaps the most distinguishing factor of citrus fruit is that the pulp consists of juice-filled pockets.
As you may remember, mealybugs are often named after the plants they target. Planococcus citri is the scientific name for the citrus mealybug.
Citrus mealybugs are particularly hard to control and can easily wreak havoc on greenhouses growing citrus trees.
Hibiscus plants are quite varied, but they all share common traits. There are over 200 species and a wide range of cultivars with warm-colored flowers ranging from white to pink to orange.
Hibiscus plants are tropical trees that can be either annual or perennial. They do best in full sun and well-draining soil.
The hibiscus mealybug is known as Rhizoecus hibisci. They’re found all over Florida, where hibiscus plants are very common.
Even if you don’t grow poinsettias in your garden, you’re likely familiar with them as they’re often sold in December for the holidays.
Poinsettias are native to Mexico and Central America. However, they’ve become highly cultivated with both solid, mottled, and striped bracts available.
Poinsettias are most commonly grown in pots in northern regions so they can be taken inside when the weather grows cold, but they can grow up to 10 feet tall outdoors in warm climates!
Both the citrus mealybug and long-tailed mealybug target poinsettias.
Herbs (The Bad And The Good)
Even the almighty mint can succumb to mealybug infestations. Many common herbs like basil can also become targets.
But certain herbs can also act as a huge preventative measure against mealybugs! For example, thyme and oregano deter mealybugs thanks to the volatile oils they release (the force behind their strong scents.)
Why Are Mealybugs So Hard To Get Rid Of?
Even with all of this knowledge, getting rid of mealybugs is no walk in the park.
What makes them so insidious?
They Are Small And Fast
You can’t catch them, gosh darn it! Barely visible, these quick creatures can’t quite be picked up easily.
Unlike some other pests, mealybugs aren’t really hand-picked off of plants. Using the methods discussed above is much more realistic.
They Can Hide In The Soil
You may not know you even have mealybugs if you’re not checking your soil! It’s easy to assume you’re overwatering, your plant is getting too much sun, it needs to be fertilized, and a list of other factors before you even think to check the soil.
But once you know about how these little suckers work, you won’t ignore your soil ever again!
They Reproduce Quickly
First off, plenty of mealybug species are able to reproduce asexually. That spells really bad news!
Life cycles vary a little bit between species. Generally speaking, adult females lay around 100-200 eggs in sacs within 10-20 days.
Mealybugs can have anywhere between two and six generations per year depending on the climate you live in.
They Have A Protective Waxy Shell
Soil mealybugs have a protective waxy shell, somewhat shielding them from even the strongest streams of water or a good dousing of Neem oil.
That’s A Wrap!
That’s all, folks! Let’s recap some important points.
- Mealybugs are small bluish-white pests that lurk in soil and on roots.
- You may find their egg sacs before you see the mealybugs themselves.
- There are lots of ways to treat infected plants, but sometimes taking a cutting and discarding the rest of the plant is your best plan of action.
- Importing ladybugs is a great way to naturally treat a mealybug infestation.
- It’s important to know if your particular plants are mealybug targets.
Here’s to a happy, healthy garden free of mealybugs!
Miller, D. R., Miller, G. L., & Watson, G. W. (2002). Invasive species of mealybugs (Hemiptera: Pseudococcidae). Proc. Entomol. Soc. Wash, 104, 825-836.
Mani, M., & Shivaraju, C. (Eds.). (2016). Mealybugs and their management in agricultural and horticultural crops (pp. 209-222). New Delhi, India:: Springer.
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
Download My Free E-Book!
Take a look at my guide on Pest Proofing Your Home In Under a Day! I get into the nitty-gritty on the most common types of pests you’ll see on your property including BOTH insects and wildlife, along with the specific signs to look for regarding any pest you have questions about.