How to Get Rid of Mealybugs

published Aug 18, 2019
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Credit: Rachel Jacks

As far as the ick factor goes, mealybugs are a 10 out of 10. 

The soft-bodied insects, which are in the scale family like aphids and whiteflies, latch onto plants and suck the sap out of them like leeches suck out blood. (How’s that for a visual?) They’re teeny tiny (about 1 to 4 millimeters long) and covered in a waxy powder that serves as body armor. 

Aside from draining the life out of plants with their “needle-like sucking mouthparts,” as the Iowa State University Extension puts it, mealybugs excrete a sticky substance called honeydew that leads to black, sooty mold growth and attracts other insects like ants—all of which can add up to a death sentence for your poor houseplants. The good part: They don’t bite or spread disease to people, says pest control company Orkin

Where do mealybugs come from?

Usually, the latest addition to your houseplant family is to blame. Greenhouses are especially vulnerable to mealybug issues because they’re warm year-round and, by virtue of their walls, keep out mealybugs’ natural predators. On top of that, adult females can’t fly, the University of California Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) explains, and mealybugs don’t crawl very fast, so if they’re in your houseplants, they must have hitched a ride. 

You also may have accidentally brought them inside yourself: Mealybugs are common garden pests, so they can be transferred inside via a pot or tool that was previously used outdoors.

How do I get rid of mealybugs?

However mealybugs ended up in your houseplants, there’s no question you want them gone, like, yesterday. Luckily, there are a couple of home remedies recommended as mealybug destroyers. 

Isopropyl alcohol: Your first line of defense is regular old rubbing alcohol. UC IPM suggests soaking a cotton ball with 70 percent or lower solution of isopropyl alcohol and simply wiping it on the mealybugs, which will both kill and remove them. (You may want to test this on just one leaf a day or two before you apply it everywhere to make sure it doesn’t burn the plant.) Repeat as needed.

Insecticidal soap or neem oil: Nontoxic sprays like insecticidal soap and neem oil work well for combatting soft-bodied insects like mealybugs, according to UC IPM. The oils in the soap and neem prevent the insects from breathing through their soft outer membranes, causing them to suffocate. Both neem and insecticidal soap are usually applied as a spray and are simple to use—just spray the mealybugs all over, repeating weekly as needed. (As with rubbing alcohol, you should test this method on a small portion of the plant first to make sure it doesn’t burn.) Repeat once a week as needed. Bonus: Insecticidal soap is easy to make at home.

You can also easily purchase both of these products:

Give up and get a new plant: A few applications of rubbing alcohol and/or neem or soap should take care of the mealybug situation for you, but if it doesn’t, consider tossing your plant on the compost pile and calling it a day. UC IPM says stronger insecticides aren’t much more effective and will cause more harm than good.