Typically with warmer weather we’re likely to see an increase in all sorts of bug activity from busy bees pollinating, annoying mosquitoes biting, and so many other insects. However, if you’re noticing these white, cottony-looking bugs on your plants all year long there’s a really good chance that you are seeing mealybugs!
Tropical plants like hibiscus and amaryllis, citrus trees, and succulents attract Mealybugs. Mealybugs also love other plants like orchids, philodendrons, and other fruit-bearing vegetation. Grow plants that mealybugs dislike, such as thyme, lavender, or rosemary in your garden to keep them away.
Today we’re taking a closer look at some of the plants that mealybugs love, some that they hate, and other ways that you can treat your plants and get rid of these bugs once they’re spotted. Let’s get started!
What Are Mealybugs And How Do You Spot Them?
Mealybugs are small, oval-shaped insects that suck plant sap from the leaves and stems of plants – ultimately stunting the plant’s ability to create its own food and thrive.
The good news is that a light infestation of mealybugs can be easy to handle. However, if you have a heavier infestation you may need to consider tossing the plant or using a more stringent treatment plan.
But don’t worry – we’ve got you covered!
As these insects make their way across your plants, there are a few ways that you can spot them!
Mealybugs Make Honeydew
Disclaimer – it’s not the amazing light green fruit that we’re talking about.
Mealybugs leave a substance called honeydew behind when they’re on your plants.
Honeydew is a powdered waxy substance, also white in color, that may help with the identification of mealybug activity as well.
Mealybugs Are Around All Year
For many insect pests, the change in weather may coincide with a reduction of insect activity, but when it comes to mealybugs, they can cause havoc no matter the season.
In warmer weather, mealybugs pose a threat to outdoor crops and plants, and in the cooler months, they prove to be problematic for houseplants and crops, and other plants that may be kept in a greenhouse environment.
Mealybug damage can range greatly depending on the level of activity. Common damage to plants includes the yellowing of leaves and their eventual drop from the plant, they may also cause buds to drop from the plant – meaning that your crops may not be as plentiful and, in extreme cases, some plants may also develop long-term issues.
Let’s see what we can do to stop this mealybug activity in its tracks no matter what we plant in our garden this year!
Plants That Mealybugs Love
Mealybugs feed on a variety of plants but especially love soft-stemmed plants and succulents.
You can find these bugs most often on a plant’s stem tips, leaf junctures, new growth areas, and – in rare cases – even the plant’s roots if their normal feeding conditions aren’t favorable.
Let’s take a look at some of the mealybug’s favorite plants to live off of and where you might specifically spot their activity.
Tropical House Plants
Tropical house plants, and tropical plants in general, are likely to develop mealybug activity. With their softer stems and leaves, two common tropical plants that mealybugs favor are amaryllis and hibiscus.
While not a preferred meal of the mealybug, hibiscus is still susceptible to mealybug activity no matter if this plant is indoors or in an outdoor garden.
In addition to sucking the sap from these plants, any honeydew left behind by the mealybugs may cause black mold – which will further cause your plant to deteriorate.
Mealybugs are also a common pest to many citrus plants and trees whether they’re kept indoors, in greenhouses, or outside as ornamental plants.
According to the University of Florida, sooty mold may develop on the leaves and fruits of citrus trees, degrading the fruit’s quality, and the fruit will require thorough scrubbing before it can be packed and transported.
If the fruit isn’t handled properly, any remaining mealybugs can continue to breed and may cause additional loss of fruit during the transport and storage of the product.
Fun fact! Mealybugs prefer grapefruit when given a choice of citrus!
Mealybugs are a serious pest of orchids and can be a particularly difficult pest to control on these plants.
Most often, these plants can become infected with mealybugs by movement or interaction between infested orchids, windblown colonization, or purchasing an already-infested plant.
Through their feeding, mealybugs will weaken the leaves, buds, and flowers of orchids, and their honeydew secretions make the plant sticky which may attract ants to the flower – creating yet another issue for this already weakened flower to try to tackle.
Succulents are another type of plant that mealybugs love and, in particular, these insects will feed on the new growth of succulent plants. The coleus plant is one of their favorites!
Mealybugs love to hide in tight places that make them harder to spot – most commonly right where the stem and leaf meet on these plants.
A quick tip! While sometimes it’s difficult to track down the cause of mealybug activity, on indoor plants, overwatering and over-fertilizing of your succulents have been found to potentially increase their activity.
Philodendrons are part of a plant family that is commonly brought in and cared for as houseplants. These plants are easy to care for and, while they’re generally resistant, mealybugs are one of the few pests that the plant may fall prey to.
On philodendrons, mealybugs will tend to hide on the underside of the plant’s leaves.
As these insects feed on the plant out of sight, the yellowing and curling of the leaves may be the only indication that this plant is experiencing their activity.
Fruit And Garden Crops
Gardens are a pride and joy to many who take the time to plant, tend, and harvest them.
As backyard or larger-scale gardeners though, we’re also aware that our crops may experience insect activity at one point in time or another.
Here are some other common fruits and vegetables that are grown in both backyard and larger-scale farms that are likely to experience mealybug activity:
Grow These 7 Plants That Mealybugs Hate To Keep Them Away
Now that we know the range of plants that mealybugs are attracted to, what can we do to combat some of this insect’s activity?
There are certain plants that mealybugs hate and their presence in your garden or window herb garden will help repel and, ultimately, deter mealybugs activity and any potential insect infestation.
Aromatic herbs have the highest ability to repel mealybugs.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common aromatic herbs that have insecticidal properties and how you can incorporate these into your indoor or outdoor space to keep mealybugs away.
Whether you’re using powdered or fresh thyme, this herb is a popular option in both cooking and for its use as an insect repellent!
Thyme contains the organic compounds of thymol and carvacrol, both of which have shown general insecticidal properties.
To put this herb to work, you can add a live thyme container to your indoor plant stand, or sprinkle powdered thyme in your plant’s containers to help keep mealybugs away.
As long as thyme has a lot of sunlight and well-drained soil, it requires very little care, is drought tolerant, and also makes a great container plant!
In addition to repelling insects, there are certain plants that will help you manage any current mealybug activity that you have as well. Cue the rosemary!
Planting rosemary will help attract ladybugs, lacewings, and parasitic wasps that enjoy making their meals out of mealybugs.
Don’t worry about the addition of these beneficial insects to your garden though – these insects will feed off any present mealybug population while leaving the plant and other beneficial insects unharmed.
Rosemary isn’t the only way to attract ladybugs and other beneficial insects! Check out our article on how to attract ladybugs to learn more. One big way to attract them is to give them water to drink!
Oregano has very similar properties to thyme when it comes to its insecticide capabilities.
Oregano contains thymol and carvacrol, and, in addition to using this herb in its plant form to help repel mealybugs, oregano oil has been used as an effective insect repellent for a variety of other common pests as well.
When looking to start your own oregano plants at home, this plant appreciates full sun, and well-drained soil, and can be grown from seeds or propagated from already thriving plants.
One of my personal favorite herbs despite its lingering scent on your breath, garlic is a great insect repellent!
Garlic’s insecticidal properties are twofold as their organic compounds help repel pests and also reduce feeding damage from mealybugs. Research published by the University of Alberta found that garlic essential oil significantly reduced long-tailed mealybug activity after application.
If you’re looking to start growing your own garlic, this herb grows best when it’s planted in the fall.
Don’t be alarmed about trying to find these bulbs so late in the season though – garlic bulbs can usually be picked up in garden stores year-round and gardeners have even been known to plant the bulbs that they pick up straight from the grocery store!
If you’re looking to add a pop of color to your garden while keeping mealybugs away, look no further!
While producing beautiful purple flowers and a lovely aromatic scent to human passersby, lavender plants also give off a scent that mimics mealybug pheromones according to research published in Taylor & Francis.
To our small mealybug pests, this false scent ultimately disrupts the insects’ ability to find mates and reproduce, reducing their presence and the chances of them repopulating to a full-blown infestation.
Like many of the other plants on our deterrent list, if you’re looking to plant your own lavender, this plant requires lots of sun and well-drained soil but doesn’t require much water or fertilizer once it’s developed.
Similar to garlic, onion has several insecticidal properties that will help keep mealybugs away and it’s not surprising given their overwhelming smell.
Whether it’s adding onion plants directly to your garden to deter mealybugs or making an onion concentrated water to help feed and water your plants, onions have a strong scent that is useful to deter insects from your plants.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that onions grow best in sunny, well-drained soil. If you’re looking to make a simple onion water mixture though for use directly on your plants, feel free to pick up some onions on your next grocery run!
Basil contains linalool, an organic compound also found in lavender, which has been proven effective as an insect repellent!
Because of the presence of linalool, basil is effective against mealybugs in its live plant form, ground herb form, and as oil.
Basil does prefer warmer weather for it to thrive, but thankfully you can usually pick up developed basil plants year-round in greenhouse nurseries or even at your local grocery store.
If you’re looking to grow your own basil from seeds, or are transplanting, sun and soil that is well drained and slightly acidic are key.
Other Ways To Repel And Remove Mealybugs From plants
Plants are a great addition to your outdoor garden or interior space and can help repel insects like mealybugs that may cause damage to your other plants.
But what if you don’t have the time or space to add more plants? We’ve got you covered!
Here are some other methods that you can use to deter or remove mealybugs from your plants no matter what time of year or environment they’re spotted.
Remove Mealybugs By Hand
This option may not be for the faint of heart or those who are squeamish, but mealybugs don’t bite so picking these insects off your plants by hand is a safe and viable option if you have a manageable infestation.
When removing insects from plants, even if they don’t bite, we recommend that you still use protective covering like gloves on your hands. When it comes to removing mealybugs, wearing gloves will also help keep any honeydew secretions off your hands.
PRO TIP: To help remove mealybugs more easily, especially if you notice honeydew on the plant leaves, you can use a small amount of rubbing alcohol on a cotton ball or q-tip to help remove the sticky substance and make it easier to pick these bugs off.
Use Neem Oil
Neem oil is a natural, effective insecticide for treating mealybug activity on both indoor and outdoor plants.
While there are plenty of neem oil products on the market to choose from, if you’re looking for a premixed option, consider Natria Neem Oil Spray for Plants.
This ready-to-use spray can be used immediately and is effective against other common insects like aphids, caterpillars, and whiteflies as well!
Isolate New Plants
When transplanting or bringing in new plants to your indoor or outdoor garden, inspecting the plant for any infestation that it may have is an important role to help avoid the spread of mealybugs.
If you’ve inspected your new plants and they appear healthy, it may still be beneficial to isolate your plants for a short period to ensure that they are insect free and ready to join your plant family to ensure avoidance of any possible windblown colonization.
To quarantine your plants, consider a barrier netting like Alpurple Insect Bird Barrier Netting Mesh. This netting has a drawstring close for easy closure, and can also be purchased in different sizes to meet your plants’ specific size requirements!
Putting It All Together!
Most gardeners know that when their plants begin to thrive that they may see an increase in insect activity in their yards.
Some of these insects may be helpful, but other insects like the mealybug can cause damage to your plants that range from yellowing leaves to a lackluster crop to a fully destroyed plant.
Mealybugs are attracted to citrus trees, tropical plants, succulents, and other plants with a high sap content. However, aromatic herbs like rosemary, thyme, and lavender can help combat their activity and even repel mealybugs altogether!
If you’re dealing with a mealybug infestation, you may be able to get rid of these insects on your own by planting some of these powerful herbs and physically removing any mealybugs that you see on your plants.
However, if you have a larger scale infestation, or if you notice that your treatments aren’t getting the job done, never hesitate to reach out to your local pest professional who can help you build a plan of action to keep mealybugs away and protect your plants once and for all.
Flores, A. (2005). Mealybugs may have met their match: insect predators and parasites home in on this growing menace. Agricultural Research, 53(4), 16-18.
Franco, J. C., Suma, P., Da Silva, E. B., Blumberg, D., & Mendel, Z. (2004). Management strategies of mealybug pests of citrus in Mediterranean countries. Phytoparasitica, 32(5), 507-522.
Karamaouna, F., Kimbaris, A., Michaelakis, Α., Papachristos, D., Polissiou, M., Papatsakona, P., … & Miller, T. (2013). Insecticidal activity of plant essential oils against the vine mealybug, Planococcus ficus. Journal of Insect Science, 13(1).
Miller, D. R., Miller, G. L., & Watson, G. W. (2002). Invasive species of mealybugs (Hemiptera: Pseudococcidae). Proc. Entomol. Soc. Wash, 104, 825-836.
Sahito, H. A., Abro, G. H., Syed, T. S., Memon, S. A., Mal, B., & Kaleri, S. (2011). Screening of pesticides against cotton mealybug Phenacoccus solenopsis Tinsley and its natural enemies on cotton crop. International Research Journal of Biochemistry and Bioinformatics, 1(9), 232-236.
Tanwar, R. K., Jeyakumar, P., & Vennila, S. (2010). Papaya mealybug and its management strategies (p. 26). New Delhi: National Centre for Integrated Pest Management.
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.
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