Pest Patrol: How To Get Rid of Mealybugs

Mealybug infestation on cactus, Opuntia microdasys monstrose.

Mealybug infestation on cactus, Opuntia microdasys monstrose.

Do you keep houseplants indoors in the wintertime? If yes, you are essentially maintaining a greenhouse, and what is a greenhouse but an artificially heated room with lots of light? While we typically don’t enjoy the bright light of a greenhouse, we do have the same problems that greenhouse keepers do. Pests!

It’s always in February that I notice these little harbouring beasts. While moving plants around in my sun porch (as close to a greenhouse as I can get) I noticed white fluffy blobs all over my favourite cactus: a case of mealybugs.

Mealybugs are a type of scale insect, but these ones don’t have the protective armour of brown scale. An individual mealybug reminds me of a trilobite. The fluffy appearance of a mealybug cluster comes from the powdery wax layer that the female mealybugs exude. It serves to protect the bugs as they cluster in a herd. Yikes, a herd of bugs!

Mealybugs injure the plant by feeding on plant sap, and present a major problem for citrus and mango growers. They damage other food crops as well, like sugar cane, pineapple, and coffee. Luckily, if found on your houseplant quickly, you can get rid of mealybugs fairly easily.

Alcohol and a cotton swab are the best way to deal with mealybugs. But use gloves!

Alcohol and a cotton swab are the best way to deal with mealybugs. But use gloves!

Tips for Getting Rid of Mealybugs:

  • Use a cotton swab dipped in 50% isopropyl alcohol. This will dissolve the waxy coating/fluff.
  • Use a small container to pour your alcohol – I always use saved jar lids for creepy jobs like this. (You do save jar lids don’t you?? I never mix my cereal bowls with my plant maintenance)
  • Dab the bugs with a liberally soaked cotton swab.  Twirl the swab in the mass of mealybugs. This dislodges the bugs and many will stick to the cotton and pull right off.
  • Wait a few days and repeat the process. You can also add a drop of insecticidal soap or dish detergent to the alcohol.
  • Use a plant sprayer set on stream, with fresh water to further dislodge any remaining bugs. Repeat the process weekly till no more mealybugs are seen.

Special tips for taking mealy bugs off cactus plants:

  • Only use one end of the q-tip if you are taking mealy bugs off a cactus! It’s too easy to transfer tiny spines to your fingers if you use both ends. (I learned this the hard way)
  • Wear gloves!
  • If you forget to wear gloves, (like me) and get spines, the tiny hairs called glochids, on your fingers, use duct tape to pull them off.
  • Apply duct tape (or other heavy duty tape) to skin where spines have lodged and peel off repeatedly till most of the spines come out.
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