With the rise of greenhouses and commercially available plants, whiteflies are becoming a more prevalent problem. When you bring home new plants, you could be introducing whiteflies without knowing it. These pests often hide out in the dirt, so how do you get rid of whiteflies in the soil?
Whiteflies are tiny, white, and triangular-shaped. They can hide on the undersides of leaves and even in the soil, but do not live in the soil.
Once they become adults they sprout wings and can fly to other plants to continue destruction and distribution.
Controlling whiteflies is achieved by using natural predators, yellow sticky traps, and horticultural oils. Pesticides are often ineffective and end up harming beneficial insects more than whiteflies. Making sure to throw out whitefly-infected soil will help to stop the spread.
What Do Whiteflies Look Like?
Whiteflies are tiny and white when they are adults. You may see them flying around while you’re working around your garden.
They may appear to look like tiny moths or white-colored gnats.
Whitefly nymphs resemble nearly microscopic scale insects. They are oval, flattened, and practically legless. The eggs may appear to be tiny grains of dirt. Nymphs can fall to the ground and hide out in the soil until they morph into winged adults.
From there they can quickly overrun your plants and spread to others. Let’s go in-depth to find out what these bugs look like.
Whiteflies Are Tiny
If you’ve been gardening for any length of time, you’ve probably come across other minuscule insects such as spider mites and aphids. Whiteflies are similar to these insect pests in relation to size.
Whitefly adults are approximately 1/16th to 1/10th of an inch long. Aphids, the pear-shaped plant suckers, are about the same size, so you’ll be looking for similar-sized bugs.
These pests are hard to see unless they congregate in large numbers, which they often do because in only a few weeks, the eggs hatch, become nymphs, and then morph into winged adults.
Look for them on the undersides of the plant’s leaves. Whiteflies hang out there and suck the liquid from the leaves, causing them to become discolored and eventually shrivel up and fall off.
Whiteflies Are Ghostly White
They’re white and they fly. This is one time when the actual name matches the description.
You may see a whitefly take flight when you inspect your plant, water it, move it, or otherwise disturb the bugs.
When they are flying around, depending on the numbers, they appear like a white cloud of gnats or fruit flies or even grains of rice on the backside of leaves. Whiteflies can also resemble tiny, white moths.
You may also see even smaller specks that are yellowish, green, or brown. These are whitefly eggs.
Whiteflies Can Be Triangular
Because of their wings, whiteflies often take on a triangular shape. Aphids on the other hand have tiny bodies shaped like pears.
Now, whiteflies aren’t exclusively shaped like a triangle. They can tighten their wings together and take on a more cylindrical shape. In this position, they resemble moving rice grains.
When whiteflies are more relaxed they take on the tell-tale triangular shape. And of course, whiteflies fly around, whereas aphids don’t usually have wings. They can grow wings, but they only use them to move to another plant to start a new colony.
Where Do Whiteflies Prefer To Live?
Whiteflies are tiny, and even with wings, they don’t get around very well. They survive by sucking the juices from plants. Adults and juveniles feed and live on plants – so they won’t go far.
Some of their favorite garden plants to live on include:
Whiteflies are also found in greenhouses all over. There they can survive cold winters that would normally cut their numbers down.
Some of their favorite ornamental plants include:
If you plant any of these garden vegetables or ornamental plants in your flower garden, be on the lookout for whiteflies. It doesn’t take long for only a few whiteflies to become an overwhelming infestation that takes your plants out.
For a more in-depth description of where whiteflies live head on over to our article about where whiteflies come from! And get this, it’s said they are pre-dated back to the dinosaur error!
Whiteflies Hide On The Undersides Of Plant Leaves
When you’re inspecting your plants for signs of whiteflies, be sure to check the undersides of your plant’s leaves. You may see some very small, white bugs flying around and not see them anywhere if you only give your plants a visual inspection.
Be sure to flip all the leaves over and look at the undersides. This is where whiteflies congregate. Though from above your plant may look healthy, when you flip the leaves over you could see dozens of whiteflies and their minute eggs.
Flipping your plant’s leaves over also helps you to find other pests such as aphids, small worms, scales, and mealybugs.
When you’re inspecting your plants for pests, always look on the undersides of leaves and in small crevices.
Whiteflies Will Travel To Other Plants
Whiteflies will travel, but they don’t go very far.
Whiteflies tend to fly from one plant to another when their food source has dried up.
All life stages of the whitefly will feed on the plant by sticking a sharp needle-like “sucker” into the plant. Whiteflies will then begin sucking the plant juices out. Most of these pests will stay on the plant, draining it until it no longer provides nourishment, then they will move to another.
When populations get crowded, some whiteflies may move on to other plants for better feeding accommodations. There they lay more eggs and start the cycle over again.
Whiteflies Don’t Usually Live In The Soil
Unlike many other plant pests, whiteflies don’t live in the soil. Adults feed on the undersides of the leaves, and while they are drinking the plant dry, they lay eggs at the same time.
When you can see the eggs, you’ll notice they are usually laid in concentric circles as the female continues to feed while laying.
When the eggs hatch, the nymphs don’t move much if at all. Most times they will attach themselves directly to the leaf where they start feeding. There are times when a few nymphs can fall to the ground, but will surely get out of the soil once they grow their wings.
Whiteflies Overwinter On Host Plants
Whiteflies don’t survive well in areas colder than Zone 7. The winters are just too harsh for them. In Zone 7 and warmer areas, whiteflies overwinter in their host plants or tall weeds.
Adult whiteflies usually succumb to the winters, but nymphs and eggs are more cold-tolerant.
According to the University of Georgia Extension, 3 hours of temperatures at 21℉ or lower will get rid of 90% of whitefly adults. But it would take 60 consecutive hours or more at these temperatures to finish off the majority of nymphs and eggs.
Identifying Whitefly Damage
When your plant’s leaves start to change colors from yellow to brown and eventually fall off, you might have whiteflies. They drain all the juices from the plant until it can no longer support itself.
These pests like to attack small, tender, new growth first. As the population grows, larger leaves will be eaten.
Whiteflies drink more fluids than they can digest and use. The excess gets excreted by these bugs in the form of a sticky, glossy substance called honeydew. Many other insects, ants included, are attracted to this sweet substance and will protect the whiteflies.
When you see ants on your plants, it’s typically because of honeydew. Ants generally aren’t interested in healthy plants, but they will fiercely defend the honeydew-producing insects against intruders.
Secondary Whitefly Damage
When the droplets of honeydew accumulate, you’ll often see a black, powdery substance start to form. This is secondary damage caused by a fungus called sooty mold.
Wilted leaves, weakened plants, and the appearance of a black or grey powdery substance are all signs of whitefly damage.
Now that you know all about these pests and what they look like, how do you treat them and get rid of whiteflies?
How To Get Rid Of Whiteflies
Whiteflies can be difficult to treat because they are so tiny and very prolific, and pesticides don’t even work well on them. What are you supposed to do if you can’t purchase a pesticide that works?
Believe it or not, natural remedies actually work great against whiteflies. However, if you are not sure how to tackle your whitefly infestation, we always recommend contacting a professional right away.
In addition to our suggestions below, there are also a bunch of plants that you can plant to repel whiteflies from your garden! Head on over to our article about the best plants to keep whiteflies away, and how to use them!
Let Natural Predators Control Whitefly Numbers
When you allow nature to flourish, it has a way to combat most garden pests. Whiteflies are no different.
Ladybugs, lacewings, spiders, and even hummingbirds are natural predators that will help you get rid of these garden pests.
By planting flowers and host plants like dill, coriander, yarrow, and marigolds for these bugs and birds, you’ll have a natural whitefly control method in your garden.
These predatory insects will quickly devour any whiteflies, aphids, thrips, and other soft-bodied garden pests.
Hummingbirds are also small insect hunters. Yes, when I found this out I was surprised too, but these tiny birds eat insects to get the protein they need! Put out a few hummingbird feeders near your garden to attract them. You can checkout our guide on some of the most common whitefly predators for specific options on introducing them into your garden!
Use Reflective Mulch
Reflective surfaces make it much harder for whiteflies to find the plants they love to eat. So put down some reflective silver polyethylene sheathing around your plants to get rid of whiteflies!
If you’re on a budget (who isn’t these days?) you can use cardboard wrapped in aluminum foil, or even paint some cardboard white! The goal is just to reflect the sunlight back up toward the sky.
Not only will reflective mulch deter whiteflies, but in areas where you don’t get much sunlight, this will help the plants grow. It’s a double win!
Plain Old Dish Soap Work Wonders On Whiteflies
Taking a spray bottle, filling it with tap water, and adding several drops of dish soap is a cheap and effective way of getting rid of whiteflies.
When you start this regimen you’ll have to spray again every several days to take care of hatched eggs and nymphs that morph to adulthood.
The dish soap isn’t very effective for eggs and flat juveniles, and it doesn’t linger. The positive to using dish soap and water is you won’t harm beneficial insects unless you spray them directly.
Another key to getting the adults is to spray them late at night, or early in the morning and make sure you spray the undersides of the leaves.
Similar to the idea behind how dish soap works, you can also use hydrogen peroxide to get rid of whiteflies! Head on over to our article about how to use hydrogen peroxide to effectively remove whiteflies.
Horticultural Oils Are A Fantastic Whitefly Remedy
Horticultural oils such as Neem oil work well against whiteflies and they don’t seem to harm honeybees, butterflies, or other beneficial insects.
Bonide CAPTAIN JACK’S Neem Oil Ready-To-Use is a great product that not only takes care of many pest insects but it also gets rid of fungal infections and mold.
Again you want to spray the insects directly so get up early before the whiteflies have had their morning java.
Castile Soap Will Get Rid Of Whiteflies
Another great all-natural and organic method to control whiteflies is to use castile soap.
Castile soap is a vegetable-based soap and cleanser that can be used as an all-purpose cleanser as well as a gentle soap for your body.
It has no artificial chemicals and does not use animal fats. It’s also an amazing insecticide for soft-bodied insects such as whiteflies, aphids, and some caterpillars.
You can get a concentrated 64-ounce bottle of Whole Naturals Certified Palm Oil Free, Castile Liquid Soap here. It can be used for general house cleaning, as a shampoo, shaving soap, and much more.
Yellow Sticky Traps Catch Pesky Whiteflies
Yellow seems to be a color that attracts whiteflies.
You can use that tendency to trap them before they get to your plants. Using Kensizer 30-Pack Yellow Sticky Traps you can trap whiteflies before they cause a lot of crop damage.
It’s best to use the sticky traps alongside other methods of control. Once whiteflies are on your plants, they don’t typically leave until they are looking for a less crowded plant to feed on.
Whiteflies are tiny, triangular, white or yellowish, flying insects that can quickly destroy your plants. Now that you know what they look like, the kind of damage they cause, and where they live, you can treat them.
When you see tiny, whitish insects hiding on the undersides of your plant’s leaves, and your plants start to change colors and wither, you know what to do.
Get out the horticultural oil, mix up some dish soap and water, and/or put out the yellow sticky traps and you’ll have whiteflies under control in no time.
Jones, David R. “Plant viruses transmitted by whiteflies.” European journal of plant pathology 109.3 (2003): 195-219.
Brown, J. K., DR E. Frohlich, and R. C. Rosell. “The sweetpotato or silverleaf whiteflies: biotypes of Bemisia tabaci or a species complex?.” Annual review of entomology 40 (1995): 511-534.
Messelink, Gerben J., et al. “Biological control of thrips and whiteflies by a shared predator: two pests are better than one.” Biological Control 44.3 (2008): 372-379.
Snow, Barbara K., and D. W. Snow. “Feeding niches of hummingbirds in a Trinidad valley.” The Journal of Animal Ecology (1972): 471-485.
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.