Scale is a little insect that damages warm climate plants and house plants. It’s a strange little pest since the adult form settles into immobility on stems and leaves and looks like anything but an insect. The waxy blobs that cover the adult scale harbor nasty little sucking critters that drink out the life fluids from the plant. Immature scale is mobile and very tiny. Males are also small and have wings, but they do not feed or harm plants. The adult females, like aphids, sometimes excrete a sweet, sticky honey-like liquid that can drip onto surfaces below. The liquid can also attract ants.
Soft scale and armored scale are common in warm environments. They are killed off by frosts of varying degrees, but then so are many of their host plants. The mealybug is a type of scale, too. There are hundreds of types of scale insects. They come in a wide variety of shapes, textures, favorite host plants and climate tolerances.
Scale can be a serious pest to edible crops like citrus and debilitating to houseplants. There are some varieties that are used commercially to make shellac finishes and cochineal dye is a red pigment that has been harvested from some species of scale insects. But the scale insect is far better known for its destructive effects on plants.
Scale is difficult to control and natural preditors are the most effective. For individual houseplants and in the home garden, horticultural oils can be effective by literally smothering the insect. Some insecticides can kill the mobile young and the males on contact, but rarely penetrate the adult female waxy shell.
If you live anywhere near open land, chances are you will be seeing plenty of your local wildlife. Although butterflies and colorful birds are always welcome guests in our gardens, some wildlife is a little less appreciated. With the bounty of lush green in our spring and summer gardens, rabbits are seeking out lawns and gardens to indulge in delectable treats. Gophers, moles and ground squirrels are burrowing pests that slow down in the winter, but become very destructive in spring when they have young to feed. Planting seeds directly into your vegetable or flower garden can attract raiding rodents that will be delighted to chomp them away after dark. Remember that just like rodents, ants will be attracted by household food and water sources. Once close to the house, these latter pests are pleasantly surprised with the cool comforts and myriad food possibilities offered by the ordinary household. Keep food sources out of your garden or sealed in metal cans. Site those bird feeders away from the house so dropped seeds don’t encourage undesirable nocturnal critters to come for a visit. Never leave pet food exposed out in the open. And keep garden refuse and dead foliage cleaned up to minimize hiding places that will house pests. Compost piles are an excellent way to recycle organic waste, but make sure they are not placed too close to the house even if it is convenient for you. The other diners might turn that convenience into a serious problem.
Smaller insect pests can also wreak havoc in your garden. Regularly check foliage of ornamentals and vegetables for aphids. Tender new growth is particularly attractive to sucking and munching insects. Warm climates harbor voracious, destructive sucking insects like mealy bugs, scale and spider mites. The spider mites may not become evident until foliage starts to look bleached. On close inspection, fine webbing and the tiny dots that are the actual mites can be seen. Hosing foliage regularly will help keep insect pests down, especially where your sprinkler or soaker systems are likely to keep foliage dry and safe for these pests. Spider mites are especially fond of edible members of the Solanum family – tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. Damaged foliage will not repair itself, but with the renewed strength of good health, your plants will readily grow fresh new foliage. Ordinary insecticides are not effective on spider mite as these are truly tiny spiders. They are in the arachnid (spider) family and they are not insects. They require poisons made with the appropriate chemicals. Some insecticidal soaps say they will kill spider mite. I haven’t had a lot of success with them personally. Of course, the washing of the leaves does help with or without soap.
To keep plants in your garden resistant to pests, give them the light, soil and water they need. Frequent light feedings (I usually recommend 1/2 of label directions) — or better, home-made manure teas, deep watering appropriate for each type of plant, well-washed foliage and the proper placement will help control insects. Mulching is wonderful to mitigate temperatures around roots and to hold in moisture. Strong plants are more resistant to pests. Keep vegetable gardens netted, fenced or surrounded by chicken wire or hardware cloth to discourage larger critters. For burrowers, line the bottom of your garden beds with metal mesh to bar entry from the bottom of the garden. Raised vegetable garden beds also help fend off larger pests.
Keep a constant lookout for insect and animal pests or disease infections. If you catch problems early, they are more easily treated. A little extra time and vigilance is the best way to avoid having to battle many pests during the growing season in your garden.
Sow bugs and pill bugs are the same critters. Once again I’m taking liberties. These critters aren’t insects. They are crustaceans and are related to shrimp, clams and lobsters. I wouldn’t recommend them steamed with butter, however. You’ll notice they amble about all over the place and cluster in dark, damp locations that they find comfy. Although they are frequently blamed for the big holes you find in stems and fruits in which they may be curled up, sow bugs or pill bugs are unlikely to have been the main culprit. Great opportunists, they’ll creep in any cave-like shelter and that damage was probably excavated for them previous to their residency. That doesn’t mean they won’t take a nibble at roots and other parts of your plants, though.
Sow bugs and Pill bugs (Armadillidium vulgare) tend to curl up into perfect little balls (hence the common name “pill bug”). They are also known as doodlebugs or roly-polies. They move on their numerous legs like multi-segmented, rounded tanks and usually come in neutral colors: grays, browns, blacks. If you happen upon one in a bright cobalt blue color, that individual has been infected with a disease common to, and limited to the species. In compost heaps, these creatures help break down your material into desirable compost. They do somewhat of the same job in the garden, as decaying organic matter is mostly what they feed upon. Although they may occasionally damage some tender root hairs of plants, they rarely have much of an impact on plant growth. In short, they really aren’t harmful, though they can become unsightly or disturbing to us humans when we encounter them in large numbers. If you don’t want so many of these sow bugs or pill bugs in your garden, you can collect them where they congregate under boards, rocks or other sheltered locations, and remove them by hand.
Insect control in the garden can be a challenge. There are different kinds of garden-damaging little pests in every climate. Some insects are highly adaptable and are endemic almost everywhere. Although there is a vast array of insecticides to help handle the problem most have some residual impact on the surrounding environment. So, consider using preventative measures like good hygiene and proper watering to keep your plants strong. Small infestations can often be tolerated by healthy plants without you having to intercede.
Keep an eye on fruit trees, ornamental plants and vegetables for aphids, whitefly, scale and mealy bug. Check tender new plant shoots and under leaves; favorite places for insects to feast. You are likely to see lot of ants around plants infected with these pests due to the sweet ‘honeydew’ the insects excrete. Keeping the ant population down is always a good, if not easy idea, since they will actually ‘herd and farm’ sucking insects, spreading the infestation. If you see ladybugs or their larvae, let nature work on the problem before interceding. Also watch for the delicate green lacewings or their voracious light brown larvae that look like miniature crocodiles. These are welcome friends in the garden. Sometimes the natural balance is restored without intervention by other natural predators.
The next best choice is hosing the infested plants with a stream of water to knock off the uninvited guests. Using an insecticidal soap like ‘Safer’s’ offers a best third choice. Although all types of insecticides are sold freely at stores, –and they will kill the pests along with any good bugs present — keep in mind if you are growing edibles that the chemicals are absorbed by the plant as well as the pest. You can buy all the chemical treated edibles you want at your local grocery store. What you grow at home can be a little less picture-perfect since you’re not selling it to the public like the grocery stores. And you can wash off a few insects in the kitchen sink far more effectively than removing traces of insecticide.
One more note about insecticides. When you march into the store, you see isles piled high with colorfully packaged products all promising to cure your garden of every problem you can imagine. It’s easy to think that since these products are so familiar, so available and so easy to use, that they are safe and innocuous. None of them are. These are ALL poisons. We dump these chemicals by the ton onto our lawns and gardens. They wash into our drinking water and ocean. A dear friend of mine who is conscientious enough to carefully read all the instructions was still miserably ill after working and breathing in residue from pesticides in a garden she had just treated. Keep in mind, much of the material available to us in stores is there because it is economically profitable to sell, not because it is the best solution to a given problem. And NOT because it is safe! We humans tend to be very busy and likely to grab the quickest and easiest solution. When you chose to use poisons, the quickest and easiest may prove the most dangerous to you and those you love. Use chemicals minimally and carefully. Another problem with the wholesale use of pesticides, fungicides, etc., is organisms that are developing a natural resistance. Again, using such products judiciously will slow down this adaptation.
No one knows the long-term effect of these materials on our bodies or on the fragile cycle of Earth life on which we all depend. Be very careful when using chemicals — even plant foods. Whenever possible, opt for natural solutions: insecticidal soaps, fish emulsion food, compost, etc. And always protect yourself. It’s better to wear a mask and gloves even if there are no special instructions to do so when using any chemicals.
Two insects in warmer climates are enemies, yet they look do similar they can easily be confused. The mealy bug is a small insect much like a large aphid, but covered with a thick scaly white powdery meal. It moves very slowly and tends to cluster on leaves and in the leaf joints. This insect will suck juices from your treasured plants and, if an infestation is bad enough, can actually kill the plant. It is found on both indoor and outdoor plants.
The mealy bug destroyer (Cryptolaemus montrouzieri) looks just like a Jurassic version of the mealy bug in its larval form. It is much bigger, often up to ½” in length, white, scaly, and powdery. It is also much more active, moving around at a respectable speed for its size as compared to the lethargic mealy bug. This fellow is actually the larva (immature form) of a small ladybug which is less than ¼” big with a blackish body and a dull orange head. Either larva or adult is as much friend as the mealy bug is enemy. It will devour the smaller insect saving you on treatment time and chemical expense. If you see the big fellow (or his little mom), try not to be repulsed by the intimidating body. You want this insect in your garden. (Personally, I have found the mealy bug destroyer most frequently on trees, though it is supposed to be an equal-opportunity predator.) Populations vary with the weather as our winters here can be cool enough to kill off most of the population of the mealy bug destroyer. Fortunately, most of the nasty little mealy bugs fare poorly in cooler winters, too.
The mealy bug is only 1/4” or smaller and is white and “mealy” or covered with a thick scaly white powder over a pink body. You can often see the long pair of white filament-like tendrils protruding from one end of the body. Mealy bugs usually cluster in colonies, the younger ones being smaller and pinker.
The mealy bug destroyer is much larger, friskier, and mimics its prey with a thick waxy white coating that sometimes curls.
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