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  • Writer's pictureTracey Parriman

Some Pests are Worth Watching For

Just as having a healthy immune system helps us fight off illnesses, plants are much more equipped at fighting off pests and diseases when they are happy and healthy. Sometimes though, pests show up when you least expect them and suddenly your beautiful and seemingly thriving plant is shriveling before your eyes.

So, that you may evade plant devastation, here are some common signs to watch for when it comes to pest invasion:

Speckled and yellowing leaves from spider mite damage

Speckled leaves: thrips and spider mites have similar eating habits - piercing into the leaf tissue and sucking out its juices (delicious, right?). As they damage the leaf’s tissue and its ability to photosynthesize, they leave behind little whitish-colored speckles. Eventually, this can cause a lot of problems if the thrip or spider mite population gets too large. If you notice your plant dulling in color and these little specks are appearing, try turning the leaves of your plant over and inspecting the undersides closely for tiny bugs. Thrips are long and slender, while spider mites are round but usually come with tiny webs in the pockets of the leaves.

White fluffy tissue in crevices of plant stems/leaves:

Mealybug residue

Images of tiny cottony fluff usually bring to mind clouds and summer days. But on plants, it can mean trouble. Look a little closer and you may see a little rollie pollie looking bug with little legs: mealybugs. These insects also have piercing and sucking mouthparts. In addition to their damage, they secrete a substance called honeydew which isn’t harmful to the plant but can encourage sooty mold to grow. This honeydew may look shiny or sticky.

Aphids can also leave behind a honeydew and speckled tissue on the foliage. These tiny plump insects are often green, black or even red.

Fungus gnats on sticky trap

Gnats…everywhere: As frustrating as fruit flies, these little gnats lay their eggs in the moist soil conditions, allowing their larvae to happily munch on roots before transitioning into the fungus gnats flying around the house. As their larvae damage root tissue, your plant might start yellowing or dropping leaves.

Helpful Suggestions

There are many ways to save your plant from pests, with some ways being more specific than others depending on which type of pest is bothering the plant. The first step is prevention - carefully inspecting often and isolating new plants when bringing them home or moving them in from outside for the winter and keeping them happy and healthy in their preferred conditions. However, sometimes pests make their way inside, so here's a few suggestions to minimize any damage:

  • Isolate plant: If you notice a plant has a problem, separate it from any neighboring plants to prevent pests from spreading.

  • Sticky traps: Especially useful for fungus gnats, yellow sticky traps are great for catching pests. Insects, attracted to the color, may find themselves stuck before they have a chance to reproduce.

  • Avoid over watering and fertilizing: This may seem counter-intuitive, but pests love to feast on the sweet, tender new growth of plants. Fertilizing seems like a good idea, giving the plant the nutrients it needs to fight the plant, but it will likely encourage more growth and give the pests easier chances to eat and reproduce. It may be best to fight the bug fight first and fertilize later. Letting the soil dry out more can be helpful for pests who lay their eggs in moist soil, like fungus gnats.

  • Trim infected pieces: In cases where you may notice the tip of a plant covered in insects, it might be helpful to trim that piece off and toss the pests away. If the population is small enough, sometimes all it takes is picking the few insects off by hand. In the case of a bad infestation, however, this may not be possible.

  • Insecticidal soap or neem oil: Insecticidal soap can be sprayed onto the foliage of the plant. This does not harm the plant, but kills any soft-bodied insect. Frequent use of this spray can be helpful in shaving down the population of insects until they are no longer able to reproduce. Neem oil is a non-toxic approach that interferes with the life-cycle process of many pests.

Overall, keep in mind that pest populations can increase dramatically and quickly - female insects often lay hundreds of eggs at a time. Eradicating them takes time and attention. These are just some of the most common signs of particular pest damage - other signs might include yellowing leaves, browning or shriveling leaves, dulling color in foliage, stunted growth, or more.

One important thing to remember is one or two yellowing and dropping leaves does not always mean trouble. It’s necessary for plants to shed their leaves once in a while, sometimes a plant may be adjusting to a new environment if you’ve moved it or just brought it home. So don’t panic right away! Either way, you’ve got this.

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