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Mealybugs on Houseplants…What You Need to Know!

If you have mealybugs on houseplants, don’t worry—it isn’t the end of the world! I’ll share how to get rid of mealybugs on houseplants, the mealybug life cycles, how mealybugs spread, if they are harmful to humans, and more!

Mealybugs on houseplants: Here’s what you need to know!

It’s time for another houseplant pest post! I hate writing these because I am usually pretty angry at a specific post when I finally decide to write them. And that’s the case here…

I’ve been had mealybugs in the past, and I got a few photos and started writing a post on them. Then I trailed off with the zillion other things I’ve had going on with life and the blog. BUT THEN. I discovered a mealybug infestation on my mom’s prized Hoya Pubicalyx

The thing is totally massive and my favorite plant of hers. So it was a big punch to the gut when we found them! Needless to say, the anger I have in my heart for mealybugs right now is at an all-time high. So let’s capitalize on that rage and talk about how to kill these furry little f***ers.

woman holding a large hoya pubicalyx

Want info on more houseplant pests? Check out my posts about How to Get Rid of Thrips Inside the House, How to Get Rid of Gnats in Houseplants, and Getting Rid of Spider Mites.

What are mealybugs?

But first, let’s talk some basics about mealybugs. What are mealybugs? They are small white insects that are covered in a white, cottony wax. There are hundreds of types of mealybugs, so we’re just going to lump them all into one here.

From far away, mealybug infestations can look like small chunks of cotton on a plant.  Usually you’ll find them on the undersides of leaves or on the area where leaves meet the stems. Given their tendency to hide under leaves, they can multiply out of sight and lead to some nasty, cotton-looking infested clumps.

While mealies are often found on the undersides of leaves or at the area where the leaves meet the stems, they can infest the entire plant. Including roots. Mealybugs are related to scale insects—the brown insects that can leave brownish sap residue as they feed on your plant. 

Try not to barf when I tell you that some mealybugs can even have these tail-looking bits off their backsides. That kind of mealybug looks like a tiny white horseshoe crab to me.

Mealybugs do not fly, and they move quite slowly. They live on your plant because they feed off of its sap. The mealybugs can then excrete a sticky clear substance on and around the plant. So not only can the mealybugs hurt your plant, but they can attract ants, too.

long-tailed mealybug on a shingle plant leaf
Long-tailed mealybug on a shingle plant leaf
Live adult mealybugs and dead residue and damage from previously treating mealybugs
Live (white) adult mealybugs and a bunch of dead residue and damage from previously treating the mealybugs

Where do mealybugs come from?

These are tropical pests that will die in four-season weather. So they won’t survive outdoors where I live. Instead, they are mostly houseplant or greenhouse problems here.

They typically don’t come in from outside on houseplants. Instead, if you have mealybugs, you’ve likely picked them up by bringing in an infested plant. I’m sorry to say that these pests are so common that no nursery is totally immune.

That’s why it’s so important to inspect all plants before you bring them into the home. Ever since I got thrips, I now treat every single plant that comes into my home and insecticide. Even if I don’t see anything.

Cotton-looking mealybug mass on a hoya
Cotton-looking mealybug mass on a hoya

Are mealybugs harmful to humans?

No, mealybugs are not harmful to humans. They aren’t interested in feeding on us. Mealybugs on houseplants is the real concern. They want that sweet, sweet plant sap! Though they are pretty gross and are harmful to my well-being when I see them on my plants. 🙂

cotton-looking mealybug mass on a hoya
Cotton-looking mealybug mass on a hoya
large trailing hoya pubicalyx plant

What is the mealybug life cycle?

Different kinds of mealybugs can have different lifecycles. For example, long-tailed mealybugs don’t actually lay eggs. They produce babies kind of like we do. Except their babies are less cute and honestly kind of suck.

In general, though, this is how the mealybug lifecycle looks: A mealybug can lay hundreds of tiny eggs in what is essentially a nest of cotton-looking protection. Laying eggs can take about a week or two, after which mom dies (brutal).

The eggs hatch after another few weeks, and the little babes are called “nymphs.” These nymphs are tiny and yellow and crawl around the plant looking for food. They can spread to other plants, too. 

They don’t have the white waxy coating when they are little. But once they feed enough, they start to produce a sticky substance. And then they start forming their white waxy coat.

It’s at this point that they have turned into the mealies we know and hate. They don’t move much on the plant and pretty much just feed off of your plant until they die. Overall, the entire lifecycle of a mealie is 1 to several months depending on temperature.

Another fun fact about mealies? This lifecycle is mostly for female mealybugs. That’s because males exist solely to reproduce, and they die very young. Girl power, I guess.

long-tailed mealybug on a shingle plant leaf
Long-tailed mealybug on a shingle plant leaf
Live adult mealybugs and dead residue and damage from previously treating mealybugs
Live (white) adult mealybugs and a bunch of dead residue and damage from previously treating the mealybugs

How do mealybugs spread on houseplants?

I mentioned that adult mealybugs don’t move much. They can move and infest other plants, but the most likely scenario is that the smaller more mobile nymphs spread to new plants. Then they find somewhere to feed and set up shop.

Can mealybugs lay eggs in soil?

Many of the common types of mealybugs lay their eggs in cotton-looking bunches on leaves and stems. However, some mealybugs actually lay their eggs in the soil. These eggs are generally found around the roots.

To get rid of these mealybugs, you’ll obviously need to treat both the foliage and the soil. This can be done in a number of ways—insecticide, neem oil, rubbing alcohol, or simply drying out the soil can help. I don’t have personal experience with root mealies, though.

damage from mealybugs on a shingle plant
Damage from mealybugs on a shingle plant

How to get rid of mealybugs on houseplants

Alright, so if you’ve seen cotton-ish bunches on your plant or around the drainage holes, or if you’ve spotted adult mealybugs and some damage on the plant, it’s time to spring into action.

First of all, if you notice any signs of mealybugs at any stage of their on a plant, immediately isolate it. Mealybugs can spread in all stages of their life and spread very efficiently when they are young, so you want to protect other plants.

If you have a really bad infestation, it honestly might be best to throw the plant away. And I hate that option…but these little buggers can be hard to get rid of. If it’s a cheap or common plant, it might not be worth the time and hassle.

If it’s a really special plant, there are many ways you can try to save it. Let’s talk about them.

sign of mealybugs on the bottom of a calathea network leaf

1. Rubbing alcohol

If the infestation isn’t very bad, you can use cotton swabs, balls, or Q-tips dipped in rubbing alcohol. Dab those on the adults you can see and the nests. Try to remove them. If there are heavily infested areas, prune them off while you’re at it.

You can also dilute rubbing alcohol in water, dump it in a spray bottle, and spray down the entire plant. Make sure you get all areas: tops and bottoms of the leaves, the stems, the soil line, and all of the nooks and crannies.

2. Soap solution

Dish soap (without a degreaser) might also be effective. This is also best in the early stages of an infestation. You can dilute dish soap in water and put it in a spray bottle, spraying the entire plant down. 

bottle of Sal Suds biodegradable cleaner

3. Neem oil solution

If you can stand the smell of it, diluted neem oil is also an option. I used it when I noticed a long-tailed adult mealy on my rhaphidophora hayi plant, and it knocked it out. 

You can buy concentrated neem oil and dilute it yourself, or you can buy it premixed in a spray bottle. Neem works by clogging a mealy’s breathing holes, but it works the best on younger mealies before they develop their wax coatings.

bottle of diluted neem oil

4. Insecticidal sprays

You may need to bring on the big guns if none of the above options work. Personally, I’ve had enough bad experiences with pests that I spray down every new houseplant that comes into my house. Just in case!

I like to use Safer brand insecticidal soap spray, which is a natural pesticide. You can get this and similar sprays at any local nursery. Captain Jack’s Dead Bug Brew is also a nice option, and I’ve found it works really well on a variety of pests.

Captain Jack's Dead Bug Brew

5. Systemic insecticides

Systemic insecticides are applied to the soil, and they work by treating the plant from the inside out. When pests feed on plants treated with systemic insecticides, they will die.

If a plant’s mealybug infestation is bad enough to warrant a systemic, I would probably just throw it out. Unless it’s a very special plant that nothing else has worked on. These are the big guns.

Bonide Systemic Granules
Bonide Systemic Granules

6. Beneficial insects—do ladybugs eat mealybugs?

It might seem counterintuitive to add new insects to get rid of other insects…but there are a lot of beneficial insects out there! Lacewings and ladybugs are two of the most common.

Ladybugs are effective at controlling a lot of pests, mealybugs included! Though they are the most effective during the beginning stages of an infestation. That’s why a lot of people use beneficial insects for ongoing pest prevention. 

cotton mealybug mass on a hoya plant
Cotton-looking mealybug mass on a hoya

What are some other ways to prevent mealybugs?

As I mentioned, I carefully inspect any plant coming into my house. Regardless of what I see, they get a thorough spray-down with a store bought insecticidal spray or neem oil spray. 

I then monitor my plants at least weekly, doing an in-depth inspection of the foliage, stems, and soil line every 2 weeks. This helps me catch things early when they happen.

Another recommendation I have is to spray down all of the foliage—tops and bottoms—of plants when you water them. This helps to clean dust off the leaves, knock off the beginnings of pest infestations, and just generally keep things looking tidy.

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