Growing succulents is a captivating narrative wrapped up in a pleasant storyline. Think of it, succulents are some of the most adorable plant groups nature has to offer, just ask the 327,000 people on our Instagram. From their cute, unique looks to their easy to handle maintenance qualities, succulents are no doubt a living room’s latest occupant.
These popular, eye-catching plants set an ambience of tranquility and charm. These qualities make succulents almost an obsession to most plant lovers.
However, as with any narrative, there will always be a horde of antagonists— the bad boys. Succulents are not exempt from a bunch of life-sucking, little pests that spread like a plague. The most common types of these annoying, itty bitty creatures are the mealybugs. And really, they’re quite a bug to succulent lovers. Mealybugs are without a doubt, the bane in the life of every gardener.
What are Mealybugs?
Typically found in warm climates, mealybugs are teensy, fuzzy, elliptical insects that are usually grey-white or light brown in color. These wingless, soft-bodied insects form cotton-like mounds or powdery blotches on leaves, stem and fruits of affected plants. This white cottony substance is usually the earliest sign of a mealybug invasion, commonly mistaken for mildew or fungus.
Mealybugs survive by feeding off the plants sap found in the tissues. They use their long sucking mouth parts known as stylets to draw out tissue sap. Given the fleshy nature of fat plants, it’s no brainer why succulents are their favorites.
As mealybugs feed, they secrete honey dew, a sugary substance that makes the plant sticky and promotes the growth of sooty molds. These molds attract bacterial and fungal attacks on the plant. Low levels of mealybugs don’t pose much of a threat to succulents. However, as they multiply, they result to a weak plant characterized by yellow and curly leaves.
Mealybugs are very cheeky pests. They hide in leaf crevices, joints where stems and leaves meet and even in the soil. They especially like to hang out in new growth parts so they can get a good tissue sap suck.
Want to battle? Know your enemy.
The mealybugs that invade succulents and other plants are either females or juveniles. The males are wingless and lack a mouth. They don’t even buzz around plants. They are short-lived, with mating as their only purpose of existence. You can easily mistake them for wasps or flies.
A mealybug will take 7-10 weeks to complete its full life cycle. Eggs hatch into nymphs in two weeks while nymphs mature to adults in 6 to 9 months.
Mealybugs can occur in multiple generations with overlapping lifecycles. This means that their populations can grow exponentially once they invade a plant. The small sized eggs and nymphs makes it hard for mealybugs to get noticed. They only attract attention once their population explodes.
Mealybugs secrete a sugary substance (honey dew) that attracts ants. These ants act as protection for the mealybugs in exchange for the sweet stuff. (Talk about bargaining with insects).
These female mealybugs lay approximately 600 eggs during their entire lifetime. Good thing is that they die after they run out of eggs (albeit leaving a gazillion junior mealybugs to carry on with the cycle).
Where do Mealybugs come from?
Mealybugs sneak up on you. One day your plants are looking all neat and green then the next day a whitish mist of cotton-like substance plagues your succulents. Mealybugs can come from anywhere, take a look at the most common causes of mealybugs below.
- A new plant brought indoors.
- Planing your succulents on contaminated soil.
- Summer’s warm climate.
- Bringing vegetables, fresh flowers or fruits from the garden.
- Fresh produce from the grocery store.
How to get Rid of Mealybugs on Succulents
Fortunately, due to their slight lack of tenacity, there are a couple of ways to control mealybugs. You can use one or a combination of the following methods to combat against mealybug infestations on your beautiful succulents.
Quarantine Affected Plants
This is the first step to take when dealing with a mealybug invasion. Once they start multiplying, they spread like wildfire, jumping from one plant to the next.
Therefore, move the affected plant away from your other succulent plants. Be sure that the quarantined succulent plant is NOT within the same room as your other succulent plants.
You can use mechanical pressure of water to hose off adult mealybugs and hopefully their eggs too. This is the simplest and the cheapest method.
To generate the desired pressure, simply place your thumb on a garden hose. You can also use your sink’s spray-faucet. Since mealybugs like hiding, a special succulent watering bottle may be helpful in reaching them in their leaf crevices. We use this 2 Pack of Succulent Water Bottles from Mkono. If you don’t have a set of these in your plant care kit, we highly recommend adding one . Keep a close watch on the plants and if the mealybugs rear their ugly heads, just repeat the treat.
This method can work best in sturdier plants like cacti and agave but is unsuitable for brittle succulents like sedum morganianum, otherwise known as the burro’s tail.
Be careful not to drown your succulent with this method. Repot if necessary to avoid plant rot.
Very effective and inexpensive solution that knocks those bad boys off your succulents. Depending on the extent of the invasion, you can use a spray bottle or a simple Q-tip to remove these pests. For small infestations, simply dip a Q-tip in 70% isopropyl alcohol and gently scrub the affected plant.
If the majority of the plant is covered by the pests, use a wash bottle and spray the plant with isopropyl alcohol. Don’t worry about drowning the plant since the alcohol will quickly evaporate. (Obviously don’t spray it too much either, be considerate).
Pay close attention to their hiding places and saturate them with alcohol. After the alcohol has evaporated, all mealybugs should be dead in a few minutes. The grayish bugs turn deep red while the cottony substance disintegrates.
The 70% isopropyl alcohol is completely safe for succulents and they won’t get burnt or damaged. This is because succulents possess a thick cuticle, some sort of barrier found on the leaves to prevent liquids from getting in or out of them. This is the adaptation that’s behind their water-saving prowess.
This is an organic, broad spectrum pest control product that is derived from neem oil. Not only is it effective against mealybugs, but also squashes aphids, spider mites and other pests. This all-natural insecticide is highly lauded as an effective pesticide.
Azamax is dangerous to aquatic life so avoid using it near water features.
We’ve mentioned this in some of our previous articles but this antiseptic and antifungal pest control solution is an excellent fit for combating mealybugs. It keeps your succulent plants safe too!
Check the product label before using as it has to be diluted before using. Applying neem oil during the day may burn your plants due to the effect of the sun on the oil. Try applying neem oil on your mealybug infested succulent plant at night instead.
Biological Control Methods
You can introduce predators on your succulents that would love to feast on mealy bugs. A great example is a ladybug. They feed on several problematic pests, mealybugs included.
Alternatively, you can opt for the mealybug destroyer. Not kidding, that’s what a Cryptolaemus Montrouzieri does— it will literally crush mealybugs.
Introducing predators to snuff out mealybugs is a low-effort solution. This is best practiced in your outdoor garden as it might be tricky in houseplants. (You don’t want more bugs in your home anyways right?)
4 Tips to Keep Mealybugs Away
- Regularly check for any pests. Catching pests especially mealybugs early on make a huge difference.
- If you spot ants around your plant, that may be a sign that mealybugs are present. Isolate your succulent plant and begin treatment right away.
- Be mindful to check for pest infestation when introducing a new succulent into your succulent garden.
- Use a potting mix that is free of any pests or eggs to your succulents.
If all else fails, it’s okay. Sometimes we can’t fix every issue that arises with succulents but that’s the beauty of plants in general. Growing these beautiful succulents comes with growing pains.
If you enjoyed this article, give us a comment below! Let us know how you handle these pests, maybe we can learn something new too.