White, sticky stuff on your plants means you've got a pest problem. Here's what to do about it.

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Every once in a while, you're bound to get a few bugs on your houseplants. One of the most common pests you're likely to encounter is the mealybug. These insects look like tiny bits of waxy or fuzzy white cotton stuck on stems and leaves. Mealybugs almost might look cute (as insects go), but they're actually a triple threat when it comes to your houseplants. First, the pests suck juices from plants, which weakens and damages growth. Mealybugs also leave an annoying, sticky residue of undigested sugar, known as honeydew. That sticky mess then can allow a fungus called sooty mold to grow, reducing a plant's access to sunlight. Here's how to get rid of mealybugs on your houseplants and keep the pests from coming back.

mealy bug
Credit: Marty Baldwin

What Are Mealybugs?

Mealybugs are tiny, oval-shape insects related to scale (another plant pest), but they have soft bodies instead of a hard shell like scale does. Look for them in hard-to-reach spaces, such as the points where leaves meet stems and the undersides of leaves. Some mealybugs also hide in soil and on roots, making them more challenging to spot. These insects are most attracted to citrus trees and tropical plants such as fiddle leaf figs and hibiscus, but they're not too picky. Mealybugs can spread to other nearby plants, too.

woman inspecting mealybugs on fiddle leaf fig
Credit: Westend61 / Getty Images

How to Get Rid of Mealybugs

When you need to get rid of mealybugs on your houseplants, you've got several options. Patience and persistence are the keys. First, isolate the infested plant or plants so the bugs don't get a chance to spread further. Then, take a closer look to figure out how bad the problem is because this will help you decide how to deal with the pests.

If the infested plant is small or there aren't many mealybugs, dab the insects with a cotton swab soaked in rubbing alcohol. This will kill and wipe off the bugs, as well as clean away the honeydew. The alcohol will dry quickly without hurting your plant, but it's always a good idea to test a leaf and wait a day to see how each plant responds.

You can also remove mealybugs from your houseplants with a strong jet of water. Take your potted plants outside (as long as temperatures are above 50˚F) and use your hose to spray them down. Don't forget to hit the undersides of leaves. In addition to blasting off the bugs, you'll also be rinsing away any sticky residue, plus cleaning off dust and dirt on your plants at the same time. However, this method isn't a good choice for delicate plants or those that don't like a lot of water.

For the most stubborn mealybug infestations, using insecticidal soap or neem oil on them should do the trick. Spray thoroughly over all the white patches on your plant, making sure to get into the stem crevices and under leaves. As with any pesticide, always read and follow all instructions on the label to effectively and safely use these products.

Repeat the treatment of choice every few days until there are no signs of pests. Or, if getting rid of mealybugs is more of a hassle than you want to deal with, you can always toss the plant to keep the pests from spreading to your other plants.

How to Prevent Mealybug Infestations

Mealybugs can hitchhike inside when you buy a new plant or move your houseplants back indoors for the winter. These are both good times to check the plants very carefully before you bring them into your home. And for new plants, it's also a good idea to quarantine them away from your other plants for a week or two. That way, if any bugs or diseases do manage to sneak in, you'll keep them from spreading out of control.

Comments (1)

Better Homes & Gardens Member
September 6, 2018
I have cleaned my plant as I was told on different sights. I’ve even taken the plant out of pot of water. Cleaned the rocks holding the plant, the roots of the plant and every part of the plant. All the leaves. I even let everything dry out some. Cleaned with alcohol as I put back in water. What else can I do. It only comes on the new growth every time. The old leaves don’t have it. Help....