Mealy bugs are one of the most common pests that infect succulents. Learn a simple way to get rid of them that is safe for the succulents!
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The basic method for treating mealy bugs will work for most pests. But you can also skip to the following:
If you're growing succulents indoors (and possibly if you're growing succulents outdoors), you are likely to encounter mealybugs at some point. If not, lucky you!
Mealybugs are like a plague. They spread quickly from plant to plant and it can be difficult to get rid of them. Fortunately, I've discovered a simple way to kill them that also keeps your succulents safe from burning or other problems normal pesticides may cause.
What are mealybugs?
Mealybugs are nasty little bugs that like to eat new growth on succulents. It's difficult to say exactly what causes them to show up, but overwatering is a common cause, as well as over fertilizing. They tend to show up on indoor plants the most as the temperatures are more temperate, but they can show up on succulents outdoors too!
These little guys usually hang out in a white web-like substance in the nooks and crannies of your succulent. Their favorite place to hide is right where the leaves meet up with the stem. This makes them hard to see and hard to kill.
If they aren't treated quickly, mealybugs will spread all over a succulent and to nearby succulents as well. It's impressive how quickly they move, and frustrating too. As they move, they eat away at the succulent. Often, this will stunt the growth of the plant and cause the new growth to look mis-shaped or smaller than usual. They may also leave some dents in the leaves if they are left for too long.
How can I get rid of mealybugs?
The video below shows the technique I use to get rid of mealybugs from succulents using isopropyl alcohol. You can also read the details of this method in the sections that follow.
While many plant pesticides will kill mealybugs, the best solution I've found to kill them is 70% isopropyl alcohol. Many people recommend using q-tips to dab on the alcohol, but I've found that a spray bottle is much more effective and easier to use.
I actually keep a little travel sized spray bottle next to my plants so I can kill the nasty things as soon as they show up. I do use a larger one if the infestation gets out of hand or affects very many plants.
When you first notice the mealybugs, move your infected plants away from everything else. Mealybugs spread quickly and you don't want to risk other plants getting infected.
To kill the mealybugs with the alcohol, simply spray the alcohol directly on the mealybugs, wherever they are on the succulent.
Be sure to check those hard to see places near the stem. Spray them really well with the alcohol. You'll notice the web-like substance will almost disappear as soon as you spray them and a little brownish/black bug, the size of a crumb will be left.
Generally, if you catch the mealybugs early just one round of alcohol spray will be enough to kill them. If you didn't quite get them all though, they may come back in a day or two. Continue to spray them until they don't come back.
If you've had a large infestation, it may be a good idea to pour alcohol over the soil the next time you water. This will kill any bugs or eggs that are hiding out in the soil.
Doesn't the alcohol damage the succulent?
Nope! The great thing about alcohol, as opposed to other pesticides, is it's completely safe for succulents.
I've had a few plants with a really bad mealy bug problem that I have pretty much soaked with alcohol a few days in a row. They didn't show any signs of burn or damage from the alcohol. The alcohol itself evaporates quickly, so it's just water that remains. If you use the spray bottle, it won't get too much on the leaves so it evaporates before any damage may occur.
Are there other ways to kill mealybugs?
Yep! I've had people suggest adding a little bit of dish soap to water and spraying or dabbing that on. You can also use systemic pesticides for house plants. Lady bugs also keep mealybugs away!
The best solution, and cheapest, I've found though, is the rubbing alcohol. It is the only one I'm confident will eliminate the mealybug problem and won't damage your succulents.
Mealybugs aren't the only pests to plague succulents. You may also encounter the following as you start growing succulents.
Gnats or Fruit Flies
Many succulent growers suffer from gnats, too. This video will teach you why your succulent soil has gnats, and a simple solution to get rid of them.
Letting the soil dry out completely between watering will help to prevent this problem, and since they're already present, it will help to kill any larvae in your soil. Your succulents will be fine for a few days and even weeks without water.
To kill the gnats flying around, an apple cider vinegar trap will do the trick. Simply put a few tablespoons of apple cider vinegar in a plastic cup. Add a couple drops of dish soap. Cover the cup with a plastic bag, but poke a hole the size of your finger in it.
This allows the gnats to fly in, but it's difficult to escape. The sweet smell of the vinegar lures them in and the dish soap traps them or weighs them down.
You can also place food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE) in the top of your soil, which will kill any adults or larvae that come into contact with it.
Keeping your soil dry is the easiest way to combat gnats and it helps your succulents too! So make sure you're using a well draining soil.
Aphids can be such pests! While it seems like every succulent grower I know has had to deal with them at one point or another, getting rid of them is not too difficult.
Similar to mealybugs, I recommend starting with a solution of isopropyl alcohol. If this doesn't do the trick, you can also treat with Safer Soap.
A lot of times, you can just use a hose with a strong nozzle attachment to wash off the Aphids. They are more likely to come back this way, but most won't recover from all the water.
Spider mites are awful little pests. Luckily, you can control them just as you would mealybugs. You can use isopropyl alcohol or other sprays mentioned above.
Scale on Succulents
The best way to eliminate scale from succulents is to spray them with Safer Soap. Once you've saturated the scale with the soap spray, you'll also want to scrape off the scale.
Be sure to sterilize whatever you used to scrape off the scale to prevent any further problems.
Ants on Succulents
There can be several reasons why ants are in your succulent soil, but often it is because they are “farming” other insects as a food source. Since you seem to have so many coming out of the soil when you water, it sounds as though they've made a home for themselves in the soil as well.
Pests such as mealy bugs, aphids, and scale love succulents, and ants love the honeydew these pests excrete.
Check your plants for signs of mealy bugs or other pests. If you see web-like substances, little white or black bugs, or small brown spots, your plant is probably infected already, and that is attracting ants.
If you can eliminate the other pests, the ants will generally go away too.
You can also try using citrus water to help repel the ants. Use 3-4 lemons in a gallon of water and pour that over your soil.
My friend Jacki at Drought Smart Plants has put together an ebook about plant pests and how to treat them. If you're looking for more information about bugs that may be infecting your succulents, I'd highly recommend checking it out!