How to Spot 6 Common Houseplant Pests and Safely Kill Them

Give these pesky bugs the boot for good.

Whether you grow a couple of African violets, pamper a fiddle leaf fig tree, or have a houseful of tropical plants, you know that regular care helps keep all your houseplants healthy and happy. But despite your TLC, your indoor garden may end up with an infestation of insects or mites from time to time. A few bugs won't do much harm, but if left untreated, they can multiply and turn your favorite potted plant into an ugly mess, or even kill it. But don't panic. Most common houseplant pests can be controlled with a few simple techniques and a little patience.

mealy bug
Marty Baldwin

"When tackling houseplant insect pests, the first step is to ask yourself how much you value the plant," says Laura Jesse Iles, director of the Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic at Iowa State University. "There are no quick fixes and it will take time and dedication to manage the pests."

If you decide to treat instead of tossing your infested plant, Iles recommends isolating it to keep the problem from spreading to your other plants. Here's how to get rid of the most common houseplant pests you may find.

scales insects on green leaf
emer1940 / Getty Images

1. Scales

Scales are soft-bodied insects that suck plant sap. Tiny crawlers (the immature stage) move a little as they feed. Adults cover themselves in a waxy, protective coating and stay put, so you might not even recognize the small white or brown bumps as bugs. Scales are most likely to be found on the underside of leaves and on stems, although they occasionally appear on the upper leaf surface as well. While they can feed on lots of different houseplants, scales are particularly fond of citrus trees, ivy, and figs.

Scale-infested leaves may turn yellow or drop off and stems die back. The bugs also produce a sticky substance called honeydew that they leave on your plant. Besides making a mess, the sweet residue can attract ants, plus a black fungus called sooty mold often develops on it. (Not a good look.)

How to Control Scales

Spray your plant with insecticidal soap ($10, The Home Depot) or neem oil ($11, The Home Depot) to smother crawlers. Adults are more difficult to control because of their waxy covering. Use your fingernail to scrape them off gently. If possible, remove heavily-infested parts of the plant, such as older leaves. Check your plant regularly and scratch off any scales you see until the infestation is gone.

Mealybugs on cycad
Dean Schoeppner

2. Mealybugs

Mealybugs are similar to scales; they are sapsuckers, have a waxy coating, and make dew. "Signs of a scale or mealybug infestation can include the presence of waxy deposits on the plant; of black sooty mold that grows on the honeydew produced by these insects, and (depending on how heavy the infestation is) sometimes yellowing and dying leaves, and distorted or stunted plant growth," says Natalia von Ellenrieder of the Plant Pest Diagnostic Branch of the California Department of Agriculture. Female mealybugs produce a white, cottony material where they lay eggs that hatch into crawlers. Coleus, hoya, jade, gardenia, and poinsettias are particularly susceptible to mealybugs.

How to Control Mealybugs

Use a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol to remove the mealybugs. For larger, sturdy plants, wash leaves off with a strong spray of water to dislodge the pests. Insecticidal soap and neem oil may be the best option for heavy infestations.

spider mites underneath a leaf
Courtesy of Wikipedia

3. Spider Mites

Spider mites are so tiny that you may not even see them. They look like dark specks on leaves, but you'll probably first notice their white silky webs in leaf axils or along veins. The mites suck sap from leaves and cause them to discolor and drop. Ivies, dracaenas, figs, hibiscus, and scheffleras are a few of their favorite hosts.

How to Control Spider Mites

Mite infestations are tough to control. If your plant is heavily infested, it's best to get rid of it before the pests spread. "For spider mites and scales, catching the problem early and inspecting plants regularly makes a big difference," says Kelley Hamby, an entomology professor at the University of Maryland. "You can use some of the easier approaches of removing infested leaves, washing them off with soapy water, and crushing them." Increasing humidity around plants may also help limit spider mite buildup.

Cotton whitefly (Bemisia tabaci) adults and pupae on a cotton leaf underside
Tomasz Klejdysz / Getty Images

4. Whiteflies

These tiny, winged insects have a delicate, powdery white appearance. The immature stage doesn't move much, but the adults flutter about when disturbed. Both stages suck plant sap, but it's the immature stage that causes the most damage, feeding from the underside of leaves. "Immature whiteflies look a bit like scale insects," Iles says. Infested leaves turn yellow and die, and the plant is often stunted. Keep a sharp eye out for them, especially on ivies, hibiscus, and poinsettias.

How to Control Whiteflies

An insecticidal soap or neem oil will get rid of whiteflies. "Be sure to apply to the underside of the leaves, where the whitefly immature stages will be," Iles says. "Treatment will probably need to be done weekly until you no longer see any immature or adult whiteflies."

close up aphids of stem of plant
Scott Little

5. Aphids

Aphids, another sap-sucking pest, also produce sticky honeydew. They can attack lots of different plants and are particularly fond of tender, new growth where they cause distortion and wilting. Their life cycle is short (usually two to three weeks long) so populations can increase rapidly.

How to Control Aphids

A hard spray of water will dislodge most aphids. Either take your plant outside to hose it down (if it's not too cold) or use your shower sprayer. Insecticidal soap or neem oil sprays are also effective.

close up of fungus gnats on yellow sticky paper placed in base of houseplant
Amelia / Adobe Stock

6. Fungus Gnats

Although tiny fungus gnat adults are more of a nuisance than a pest, the immature stage (larvae) feeds on plant roots and can cause growth problems, especially on young plants. "Fungus gnats are often a symptom of overwatering," Hamby says.

How to Control Fungus Gnats

Allow the surface of the soil in pots to dry between watering. Do not let water stand in saucers. Drenching soil with the biological insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis var. israelensis will control the larvae. Yellow sticky traps will help capture adults.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are natural ways to get rid of pests on potted plants?

    The best natural products to use to rid potted plants of pests are 3 homemade sprays. Mix one of these recipes in a labeled spray bottle: 1 tablespoon of baby shampoo and 1 gallon of water; 1 cup cooking oil, 2 tablespoons dish soap, and 1 quart water; or 2 teaspoons cinnamon and 4 cups warm water steeped overnight. Other options include neem oil, rubbing alcohol, and sticky fly paper.

  • What is the fastest way to get rid of pests on indoor plants?

    The fastest way to rid plants of pests if there are just a few bugs is to wipe them off leaves with your fingers or a cloth soaked with rubbing alcohol. However, if the infestation is more extensive, remove the leaves with the most bugs and spray insecticidal soap on the rest of the plant. 

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