Succulent plants are popular in gardens and as houseplants for many reasons, not the least of which is their ease of care. Succulents can thrive even with mild neglect, making them the perfect plants for busy or forgetful gardeners.
That doesn’t mean there are never any problems or issues when growing succulent plants, though.
The most prevalent succulent problems are root rot and other bacterial or fungal diseases caused by overwatering. But there are also some common pests that can damage or even destroy your succulents.
Here are seven of the pests that you’re most likely to encounter and how to get rid of them.
Mealybugs are some of the most common pests with succulents and cacti.
They are soft-bodied insects covered with white material, almost like cotton. This white “fluff” is their protection against excessive heat and moisture loss.
“Mealies” feed on a wide variety of plants, but they especially like succulents. As they feed, they weaken and stunt the plant. This results in yellowing, wilting, and in some cases, the death of the plant.
Some species of mealybug inject a toxin while feeding that causes plant malformation. They also excrete honeydew, which allows sooty mold to grow. This mold blocks sunlight and hinders photosynthesis.
Adult female mealybugs can deposit 300-600 eggs, which also have a waxy, cotton-like appearance. As a result, infestations can quickly get out of control if left unchecked.
Visual inspection is the easiest way to detect mealybug infestations. Look for white, cottony spots on the plant.
Mealybugs have a symbiotic relationship with ants. Ants feed on the honeydew and in turn, protect the mealybug from predators. Therefore, an ant infestation could be a sign that mealybugs are munching on your succulent.
Dip a cotton swap in rubbing alcohol and apply directly to the pests. This will not harm your succulent, and it will kill the mealybugs. You can also dilute rubbing alcohol with water and apply it to the plant with a spray bottle.
You can also mix one quart of lukewarm water with one teaspoon of liquid soap and two teaspoons of organic neem oil.
Mealybugs are stubborn pests. It may take multiple treatments to rid your succulent of these destructive insects.
You can also opt for biocontrol by introducing natural mealybug predators, such as ladybugs, to your succulent garden.
Scale insects are parasites that attach to succulents and feast on their sap. This cuts off the flow of nutrients and can damage or even destroy your plants.
Succulent scale insects secrete a liquid consisting of water and high levels of sugar. That’s why scale insects feel sticky.
While there are over 1,000 species of scale, there are two groups that are commonly found on succulents: armored scale and soft scale insects.
Look for small black or brown bumps on your succulent. In larger infestations, they can cover entire leaves of the plant.
If you observe brown patches around the base of the plant, there may be scale insects underneath the soil.
The easiest treatment is, of course, prevention. Scale insects are usually problematic when the soil is too moist. Overwatering or high humidity creates conditions that attract these pests to your succulent plants.
If you are already dealing with an infestation, there are multiple treatment options.
For smaller infestations, scale insects can be removed by hand or using a brush.
Insecticidal soap is also quite effective. Most insecticidal soaps contain potassium salts. This dissolves fats and oils in scale insects, paralyzing and killing them.
Rubbing alcohol is effective, as is neem oil. Use the same application methods described for treating mealybugs.
Biocontrol is always an option. Along with mealybugs, scale insects are also a favorite on the ladybug’s menu.
Aphids are usually green, but they can also be yellow, black, or pink.
They are tiny insects with teardrop-shaped bodies that love to pierce the leaves of succulent plants and suck out the sap. This can cause the plant to have misshapen leaves and stunted growth.
Similar to mealybugs, aphids excrete honeydew as they feed, leading to sooty mold.
Aphids can also carry viruses that will infect and kill your succulent.
Consistent visual inspection is the best way to detect aphids. Be sure to look in the folds and crevices of the plant. Inspecting your succulents 2-3 times a week is recommended.
Also, similar to mealybugs, look for ants. Ants eat the honeydew excretion from aphids. Lots of ants could mean an aphid problem.
When you do these routine inspections, you can catch aphid infestations before they get out of control.
Aphids can be washed away with water, but some succulent enthusiasts refrain from this treatment since overwatering can introduce a whole host of other problems.
Alternatives include rubbing alcohol, neem oil, and insecticidal soap. All are effective options to rid your succulents of those awful aphids.
4. Spider Mites
Spider mites are rather insidious pests for succulents because they are so small that they can go undetected for a long time.
Spider mites are arachnids, not insects, meaning they are related to spiders, ticks, and scorpions.
Red spider mites, the most common variety, thrive in hot and dry conditions, which just so happen to be the exact conditions required for most succulents to grow.
These mites suck the sap from succulents, causing the plant to become lighter in color, and eventually almost silver or white.
A spider mite is only about 1/50 of an inch long. This diminutive size can make detection difficult. A spider mite infestation usually looks just like dust to the naked eye.
Telltale signs to watch for are webbing and small brown spots on your succulent, especially on younger growth.
You’ll probably notice a pattern developing here. Treating spider mite infestations is similar to eradicating other common pests.
Flushing with water is an option, but you don’t want to overwater your succulent.
Insecticidal soap is highly effective, even though spider mites technically aren’t insects.
Rubbing alcohol or neem oil treatments are also good options, using the same methods discussed earlier.
5. Fungus Gnats
Fungus gnats are particularly problematic for indoor succulents. Generally speaking, these gnats are not quite as destructive as some of the other common succulent pests, but that doesn’t mean they are harmless.
These gnats look like very small brown or black flies or mosquitoes. They can damage your succulent, most often at the roots.
Fungus gnats are drawn to moisture, so if they are present, the succulent is probably receiving too much water, or it is planted in the wrong soil.
Succulents need sandy, well-draining soil. A rich soil that holds moisture will hinder the plant, and it will also attract pests such as fungus gnats.
Fungus gnats are flying insects, making them easier to detect than other succulent pests. So when you see them flying around, the problem will be self-evident.
Ben Franklin’s old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” certainly applies here. Plant your succulents in the correct soil and only water when the top inch or two of the soil is completely dry. That will go a long way to preventing fungus gnats.
But if these pesky insects are already a problem, you can take steps to eradicate them.
Place yellow sticky traps around your plant to catch the mature, flying fungus gnats. But remember that there are also tiny maggots present that will eventually become adult fungus gnats. Leave the traps around the plant for a while, even after you stop catching visible gnats. That way, the traps will be there when the newly hatched gnats emerge from the soil.
Some gardeners also recommend sprinkling cinnamon on the soil. Cinnamon has natural anti-fungal properties, and it won’t harm the plant.
These soft-bodied insects look like tiny moths, but they are actually related to aphids and mealybugs. And they can do just as much damage to your succulents as their relatives.
Whiteflies are particularly fond of leafy succulents. Their lifespan is short, but their fast and prolific reproduction offsets that.
These pests live exclusively in warm weather. If you live in a colder climate zone, these pests will only be a problem in the summer months. In warmer zones, they can be an issue year-round.
If your succulent is a houseplant, whiteflies can be an issue any time of year, no matter where you live.
These insects produce honeydew on your plant, which, as we’ve already discussed, can lead to the growth of sooty mold that hampers photosynthesis. Left untreated, it will damage or kill your succulent.
Adult whiteflies are easily identified. Measuring about 1/16 inch long, they resemble miniature moths.
If you suspect a plant is infested, shake the leaves. The whiteflies will fly out from the underside of the leaves.
Nymphs are also found on the undersides of plants. They look similar to scale insects.
Just like fungus gnats, yellow sticky traps work well to rid your succulent of whiteflies.
Neem oil and insecticidal soap are effective, organic options.
You can also apply rubbing alcohol with a cotton swap or diluted in a spray bottle.
For outdoor succulents, there is an attractive biocontrol option: hummingbirds. Hummingbirds love to feast on whiteflies, so consider how you might attract them to your garden.
As noted earlier, ants are attracted to the honeydew excretions from pests such as mealybugs and aphids.
While ants don’t directly harm your succulent, an infestation is a sign that there is a pest problem. And, even though the ants themselves won’t harm your plant, do you really want an ant infestation? Of course, you don’t.
This one is easy. Visually examine your succulent. If you see ants, then you have ants. How’s that for obvious?
But then, there is also the not-so-obvious issue. If you have ants, you probably have some other pests that you haven’t detected yet.
Diatomaceous earth is a mineral-based insecticide that is highly effective at eradicating ants. Spread it on the soil and around the succulent base; the ants will be dead in minutes.
One important thing to note: inhaling diatomaceous earth can be harmful. Move houseplants outside during treatment.
You can also use ant baits and traps purchased from your local store.
Or you may not even need a trip to the store because you already have everything you need in your kitchen. Coffee grounds, pepper, chili powder, baking soda, and cinnamon are all common ant deterrents.
Synthetic insecticides can be effective, but use them with care since they can be harmful to humans. Maybe save them for the last resort since there are other, safer options available.
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