Garden and indoor plants get infestations from various insect pests and microbes. These houseplant pests cause severe damage to your favorite plants and appear as tiny white dots on both leaf surfaces (upper side and underside). In this article, you will learn how to identify and get rid of tiny white bugs on plant.
If you notice any white color dots on your outdoor and indoor plants during regular checks, it is crucial to figure out what they are and how to get rid of them?
A bunch of healthy houseplants—free from diseases and insect pests Photo Credit
Most probably, these tiny white dots are due to tiny white bugs. These tiny white bugs belong to various insect types such as whiteflies, aphids, spider mites, scale insects, and mealybugs. These pests cause severe damage to infested plants as these tiny bugs suck plant juices and deprive them of nutrients.
A close up of tiny aphids on an infested plant Photo Credit
In this write-up, we’ll discuss these tiny white bugs on plants one by one and provide information on how to treat them effectively?
Types of White Bugs on Plants
Hundreds of tiny white flies on the underside of infested plant Photo Credit
These tiny white bugs (whiteflies) belong to the insect order Hemiptera and the family Aleyrodidae. They suck plant sap through piercing-sucking mouthparts from a variety of hosts. Whiteflies establish themselves on the underside of leaves and suck out nutrients in large clusters without distinction between adults and nymphs.
Whiteflies are closely related to aphids, scale insects, and mealybugs—other deadly pests of outdoor and indoor plants. This white bug has white mealy wax covering its body and wings. The adult whiteflies appear as tiny, yellow with four whitish wings. At the same time, the nymphal stages of these white bugs are yellow, white, or black, with a white fringe around the body.
Nymphs of whiteflies which appear as transparent with white fringe around their body Photo Credit
Whitefly infestations are higher during warm and humid weather when the weather conditions are favorable for population buildup. However, even such weather conditions make the activity of natural enemies difficult due to the rapid outbreak of whiteflies.
The most common pest species are greenhouse whitefly and sweet potato whitefly (Bemisia tabaci). At the same time, the sweet potato whitefly has a broader host range and almost remains active all year round from one host plant to another one.
All life stages of tiny white bug—whitefly from eggs to nymphal, pupal, and adult stage Photo Credit
How Do Whiteflies (tiny white bugs) Damage Infested Plants?
Whiteflies are tiny, sap-sucking insects that use needle-like mouthparts to suck out plant juices from the phloem (food transporting tissues) and leaf tissues. During severe infestations, the leaves of affected plants turn yellow and brown and appear as dry, leathery, and fall off. Due to defoliation, host plants become weak and unable to prepare their food and, as a result, die.
In addition to that, the whitefly also secretes sticky materials like aphids and mealybugs. This sticky substance attracts the sooty mold fungus and black ants.
The black ants interfere with the activity of beneficial insects because they feed on the sticky material secreted by whiteflies. The feeding injury of whiteflies also includes host plant distortion, silvering of leaves, and stunted plant growth.
Note: Whitefly infestations also transmit deadly plant viruses in many vegetables and commercial crops. These infestations are more damaging in citrus orchards, cotton crops, and green leafy vegetables.
Tiny white bugs on plant—scale insects living on the underside of plant leaves Photo Credit
Scale insects are a large and diverse group of sap-sucking pests that belong to the order Hemiptera and are closely related to aphids and whiteflies. However, they are different from mealy bugs. They attach themselves to the twigs, leaves, and branches of infested and potted plants.
Almost 1000 scale insects in North America infest both outdoor and indoor plants. However, the infestations of scale insects often go unnoticed because they appear as weirdly shaped and beneath a waxy covering—resembling an aquatic reptile parasite.
Scale insects attached to twigs and sucking plant juices Photo Credit
Scale insects feed on many host plants, ranging from outdoor and indoor to ornamental plants. They suck plant sap and lead to host plants’ defoliation, stunted growth, and vigor reduction.
While sucking plant sap, they also secrete honeydew which supports the growth of sooty mold and black ants. Sooty mold is a fungus that feeds on the sticky and sugary substance secreted by scale insects and covers the leaf surfaces—as a result, interfering with the photosynthesis process.
Black ants guarding the scale insects to feed on honeydew Photo Credit
The female scales are wingless and remain sessile throughout their life. The adults lay eggs underneath these hard waxy coverings, which hatch into young, legless, and immobile crawlers. At the same time, the males look similar to male fungus gnats.
The young crawlers are smaller than a pinhead and crawl over a small distance to search for suitable feeding sites. Once they find the right feeding site, the crawlers settle down and start to produce their hard waxy coverings and undergo molting.
After the first molt, the nymphs lost their legs and were sessile as adults.
There are two types of scale insects—soft and armored scales. The soft scales are more important than the armored scales because they are found in indoor plants. They are round to oval in shape and look similar to tortoise shells. The young crawlers are light yellow and turn dark black or brown as they develop into adult stages.
The soft adult scales lay almost fifty to 2000 eggs beneath their coverings which hatch within one to three weeks. This tiny bug infests the underside of leaves and rarely gets on upper leaf surfaces. The heavy infestations of the entire plant lead to wilting.
The second type of insect is armored scales which get their name from hard waxy body coverings. They are smaller than soft scales and are not raised like soft scales. That is why these white bugs go unnoticed than soft scales.
Tiny White Bugs—Aphids
Tiny white bugs—aphids sucking sap from host plants Photo Credit
Aphids are tiny bugs closely related to other white bugs (whiteflies, mealybugs, and spider mites). They are soft-bodied and pear-shaped insects with long slender mouthparts that pierce their host cells to suck plant sap.
In this picture, the black ants are nurturing the aphids from their natural enemies to feed off their honeydew. Photo Credit
These tiny white bugs have long legs and antennas with varying body colors, from light green to yellow, black, orange, and white. Like their other close relative, these white bugs also secrete white waxy coverings on their body.
Moreover, they produce honeydew on infested plants and attract secondary pests such as black ants and sooty mold fungus. These pests feed on the honeydew and coat-infested plant leaf surfaces. In this way, they interrupt photosynthesis and lead to reductions in plant vigor.
The damage of aphids includes the deterioration of product quality, yellowing of leaves, and the death of the host plant due to defoliation. In addition to that, aphids transmit plant viruses that impact plant health.
A group of aphids feeding on ornamental plant Photo Credit
The adult tiny white bugs (aphids) are wingless, but some species have wings in spring and fall when the populations are high. They do not feed singly but feed in large groups, have all life stages in one large group and are busy feeding on plant sap.
The black ash on fallen Autumn leaves is black sooty mold fungus that grows on aphid honeydew. Photo Credit
Aphid populations are higher in spring and fall when weather conditions are suitable for their reproductive growth, and host plants are abundantly available. They have multiple generations per year and suck out nutrients from infested plants.
Like whiteflies, aphids have a higher reproduction rate and can be seen overlapping generations of these tiny white bugs on plants. However, female aphids do not need to reproduce. Instead, the wingless females give birth to young aphids throughout the summer. So, for example, the aphids can have 15 generations per summer season because the nymphs proliferate and are ready to birth new baby aphids.
Female aphids give birth to nymphs during summer Photo Credit
Different Species of Aphids
There are different species of aphids that feed on various host plants ranging from garden plants to trees, herbaceous, and shrubs. It includes cabbage aphids, green peach aphids, sweet potato aphids, oleander aphids, rose aphids, pine and white oak aphids, and spirea aphids.
Potato aphids along with green peach aphids Photo Credit
White bugs on plants—mealybugs Photo Credit
Mealybugs are small, slow-moving insect pests of indoor and outdoor plants. They feed in large colonies and suck sap from infected plant tissues. These tiny white bugs are closely related to soft, armored scale insects. On infested plants, mealybugs appear as white powdery masses that damage their hosts and restrict their growth and reproduction.
Like scale insects, the body of mealybugs is covered with waxy coverings and thread-like filaments around their entire body. They prefer protected feeding sites, and most can be seen where two fruits are touching and in crotches near the soil.
Rice mealybug with segmented and wax covered bodies on affected plants—another tiny white bug on plants Photo Credit
The adult female mealybugs are wingless, while the males are tiny two-winged insects with two long filaments in the tail region.
Male mealybug Photo Credit
Female mealybugs lay 100 to 200 eggs in a cottony sacs period of 10 to 20 days. These egg masses are attached to crowns, leaves, and branches. Eggs hatch within four to six days, and newly hatched nymphs are yellow, pink, and orangish.
The nymphs are pretty mobile and lack wax coverings. However, after establishing themselves on feeding sites, larvae start to excrete waxy surfaces and undergo 3 to 4 moltings before becoming adults.
Note: In many species, the eggs remain within the female until they hatch.
Heavy mealybug infestation on the hibiscus plant. It has all the life stages, including adults, egg masses, and nymphs. Photo Credit
The image above represents all stages of mealybugs on a plant. It is most common in indoor environments because of the warm temperature and abundant humidity. However, even the mealybugs can have six generations per year in interior spaces.
The damage of mealybug infestations includes loss of vigor, stunted growth, falling of leaves, and slow plant growth. The host plants for mealybugs include herbaceous perennials such as cactus, coral bells, figs, flax, gardenia, jasmine, mimosa, and oleander. All the affected plants show leaf drop, slow growth and reproduction, and black ashy growth of sooty mold fungus.
Like other tiny white bugs on plants, mealybugs also secrete honeydew, attracting black ants and sooty mold fungus. Both these secondary pests interfere with the activity of natural enemies.
Other plants include fruit trees such as mangoes and citrus. However, these have more severe problems, such as reductions in fruit production.
As their name suggests, root aphids are similar to usual plant aphids but vary in feeding behavior. They feed on plant roots and rarely come to plant surfaces. However, identical to aboveground plant surface aphids, they have piercing-sucking mouthparts and a severe problem with houseplants.
Root aphids, along with their guarding angels—black ants Photo Credit
These white pear-shaped pests feed in large colonies and are hard to identify because they blend themselves with the soil and root color. Root aphids secrete a white chalkier waxy material, while the light green aphids secrete watery honeydew. Therefore, white chalk on the ground is the first sign of root aphid infestations.
Root aphids appear pear-shaped like whiteflies than mealybugs which are more round. They are often confused with mealybugs because of their secretions. On the other hand, root aphids resemble fungus gnats in their adult stage.
The root aphids’ damage is mistaken with nutrient deficiencies because their feeding injury causes yellowing of leaves, stunted growth, and plant wilting. The host plants for root aphids are veronica, sedum, aster, and coreopsis. Unfortunately, root aphids are also deadly pests of essential herbs such as oregano, basil, and hosta.
Root aphids show resemblance to mealybugs and are tended by black ants Photo Credit
Root aphids are highly adaptable and reproduce quickly. During the growing season, they can produce without mating and expand their populations. They overwinter as eggs in the soil and are attached to leaves and stems.
The crawlers will pierce the plant roots, scar them, and expose them to the powdery mildew fungus. Then, as their numbers increase, they migrate toward the stems and leaves. In fall, the adult female and male root aphids will mate in trees and shrubs and produce more eggs.
It is believed that ants carry the root aphids from badly infested plants to healthy or uncolonized plants for more honeydew production.
How Do White Bugs on Plants Cause Damage?
White bugs on plants cause severe damage to your indoor and garden plants. They suck out plant nutrients and attract secondary pests (black sooty mold fungus and black ants). In addition, the heavy infestations of tiny white bugs on plants lead to plant leaf drops, weaker defense systems, and reductions in cosmetic value.
In houseplants, the infestations of white bugs lay eggs in potting soil, damaging the foliage (reducing aesthetics), ultimately leading to plant death.
On the other hand, in garden plants, the damage of tiny white bugs is unmeasurable because they transmit some of the most deadly viruses (grapevine, pulses, and green leafy vegetable viruses). In addition, these bugs negatively impact reproduction growth and product quality. Therefore, the best approach to eliminating tiny white bugs in outdoor spaces is to establish their natural enemies, such as birds and other beneficial insects.
A helpful guide to killing white bugs on plant
How to Get Rid of White Bugs on Plants?
The damage of white bugs on plants includes wilting, defoliation, and reductions in product quality as they leave tiny white specks on leaves, sticky material, and white powdery masses of eggs. Therefore, it is vital to early recognize the white insects and eliminate them by following approaches:
- Regularly monitor your plants both indoors and outdoors against the infestations of fuzzy white bugs. If you notice any of them, hose off them with a bug blaster or high stream water sprinklers.
- Isolate or quarantine the newly purchased plants for at least two weeks and carefully monitor for white insects infestations and egg hatching
- Use rubbing alcohol to wash off the fuzzy white bugs with a cotton swab. Make sure to spread over the alcohol to suffocate the white bugs uniformly.
- Spray plants with insecticidal soap to deter the nasty mealybugs and aphids.
- Use diatomaceous earth as a soil drench to kill root aphids. Also, mix it with potting soil to discourage any future infestations.
- Use sticky traps to capture winged insects closely related to white bugs on plants.
- Spray plants with insect killer granules and be sure to apply them on the underside of leaves to kill all life stages of white bugs.
How Do You Get Rid of Mealybugs with Neem Oil?
Neem oil contains azadirachtin, which functions as an insecticide, fungicide, and miticide. So the biweekly applications of this organic insecticide will help get rid of mealybugs. The pro of using neem oil spray is that it kills all life stages of mealybugs, from eggs to adult mealybugs. It suffocates the insect and works as an antifeedant, and effectively kills the mealybugs within eight hours of application.
What is White Stuff on Houseplants?
The white stuff on your houseplants is the infestations of fuzzy white bugs that have sucking mouthparts to steal plant nutrients: aphids, whiteflies, mealybugs, root aphids, and spider mites. Heavily infested plants show the symptoms of defoliation, stunted growth, yellowing, and browning of leaves.
It is crucial to eliminate these white bugs on plants to keep the houseplants healthy and happy. The best approach to keep these pests away is to encourage beneficial insects and spray plants with neem oil, vegetable oil, insecticidal soap, and mild liquid dish soap.
What Do Mealybugs Look Like in Soil?
These are not mealybugs but root aphids. Root aphids resemble mealybugs but are slightly pear-shaped and preferably root eaters. They are hard to manage due to their smaller size and higher reproduction rate.
Sources for Further Reading
- Flint, M. L. (2015). Whiteflies Management Guidelines–UC IPM. University of California Statewide IPM Program. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7401.html
- Flint, M. L. (2016). Mealybugs Management Guidelines–UC IPM. University of California Statewide IPM Program. Retrieved April 25, 2022, from http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn74174.html
- Flint, M. L. (2013). Aphids Management Guidelines–UC IPM. University of California Statewide IPM Program. Retrieved April 25, 2022, from http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7404.html
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