If you see waxy, white splotches or cotton-like clumps on your grass, you may be dealing with mealybugs. Mealybugs are tiny insects that softly suck the sap right out of the grass and plants in your lawn. If you want to know more about how to get rid of mealybugs in your yard, we’ve got the information and simple solutions you need to restore order and life to your lawn.
- What are mealybugs?
- How to identify mealybugs
- How to get rid of mealybugs in your lawn
- How to prevent mealybugs in your lawn
- How to get rid of mealybugs on your plants
- How to prevent mealybugs on your plants
- Facts about mealybugs
What are mealybugs?
Mealybugs are piercing-sucking insects that are members of the Pseudococcidae family. These small bugs drink sap from the cells or tissues of plant leaves and stems. The Rhodesgrass mealybug (Antonina graminis) and the Tuttle mealybug (Brevennia rehi) are two common mealybugs found in home lawns.
In the U.S., mealybugs are found in the Gulf Coast states and in other states along the southernmost latitudes with subtropical climates.
Fun fact: The Tuttle mealybug is also known as the rice mealybug because in Asia, it primarily eats rice and sugarcane.
How to identify mealybugs
The best way to identify mealybugs is to look for these signs that the bugs have been feasting on your lawn:
- Small cotton ball sacs
- Waxy white secretion on grass leaves
- Turf that’s turned brown or yellow
- Areas of your turf that have a black, sooty-like mold
Caution: Many other insects (for example, whiteflies and aphids) also produce this sweet honeydew substance. So, the honeydew or corresponding black sooty mold is not necessarily an indicator that mealybugs are to blame.
To get an accurate ID on what’s eating your lawn, ask your local Cooperative Extension Office if they have a plant-pest lab in your state that identifies problems with plants or grass. It’s worth the small fee to be sure you know what pest it is before you treat it.
How to get rid of mealybugs in your lawn
Once you know you have mealybugs in your lawn, here are a few strategies to control them and take back your lawn.
1. Collect your clippings
Seems straightforward, right? Collect your lawn clippings and put them in your city’s green waste bin to physically remove some of the mealybug population from your lawn. This may help most in cases where there is a large infestation.
2. Maintain your lawn
There are a few things we know about lawn pests: They love thatch; they love stressed, unhealthy grass; and they love too much fertilizer. Mow, fertilize, dethatch, aerate, and water correctly for your warm-season lawn to help your grass resist and fight back against these pesky critters.
3. To spray or not to spray?
Contact insecticides are not recommended to control a mealybug infestation. Their waxy coating helps to protect them from these chemicals. In addition, insecticides also kill beneficial insects and natural predators, including mealybug destroyers, parasitic wasps and flies, and some beetles.
Systemic insecticides are, however, an option since the plant will uptake the chemical into the vascular system, which the mealybug then eats and dies. These chemicals are most effective when mealybugs are in the nymph stage, so timing is important.
Consider asking your local Cooperative Extension Office for advice before you apply systemic insecticides in your lawn, especially if you have a shallow water table or live near a body of water.
A note: Be patient. In heavy infestations, it can take up to several months to bring the mealybug population back down to a level where they are not damaging your lawn.
How to prevent mealybugs in your lawn
Mealybugs are a part of the natural ecosystem in many warm-season grasses, but there are ways to keep the population in check so they don’t damage the appearance of your lawn. The best way to prevent an overabundance of mealybugs in your lawn is to give it the regular care and maintenance it needs.
Here are a few ways to take good care of your warm-season lawn:
Mow at the proper height
|Warm-season grass||Suggested mowing height|
|Bermudagrass||1-2 inches (non-hybrid varieties)|
|Buffalograss||2-4 inches, depending on how often you mow|
|St. Augustinegrass||2.5-3 inches for dwarf cultivars; 3-4 inches for standard cultivars|
If you do nothing else to take care of your lawn, mow at the proper height. Grasses have a preference (believe it or not) for how tall they like to be mowed. Follow the height guidelines for your grass to help it ward off pests.
The best way to know how much to fertilize your lawn is to take a soil test. A soil test measures different types of nutrient levels in your lawn, and the soil test report will provide recommendations based on these levels. A soil test may cost a small fee, but it’s worth it in the money you save in unnecessary fertilizer.
Another point to remember is that too much fertilizer hurts your lawn, encourages insects, and can be harmful to local waterways. Applying just enough but not too much (that crucial balance) will help keep your lawn and the environment in optimum condition.
Dethatch or aerate
If you’ve never heard of either of these terms, don’t sweat it. Here are two quick definitions:
✓ To dethatch your lawn is to remove undecomposed organic matter (leaves, stems, plant roots) from the top of your soil.
✓ Aeration is like giving your lawn a steam facial: It pulls plugs out of the soil to open up its “pores” and give air, water, and nutrients better access to the plants’ root systems.
Thatch is like a sponge on top of your soil that prevents water, nutrients, and air from getting down into the soil. A little bit of thatch is good (up to one-half inch for most grasses), but anything over that, and you’re asking for trouble.
Proper watering is crucial to a healthy lawn. A general rule is to water your lawn deeply but infrequently. Set your sprinklers to apply 1- 1 ½ inches of water once per week. Why is this the best practice? Simply put, when the grass starts to get thirsty, it starts to search deep in the soil for water, growing deep, strong roots in the process. This creates a resilient, strong plant that is better able to weather the stresses that come its way.
One exception to the deep but infrequent rule is if you have sandy soils, which don’t retain water as well as clay or loam soils. In this case, you may need to water two to three times per week, still aiming for a total of 1-1 ½ inches.
How to get rid of mealybugs on your plants
Unfortunately for plant lovers, mealybugs not only live in lawns, but they also live on outdoor plants and houseplants as well.
Identify mealybugs on your plants
Look for the some of the same mealybug symptoms on ornamental plants and indoor plants as you do in your lawn:
- Small, waxy, white bugs on the plants
- Black, sooty mold
- Plants show yellowed leaves or stunted growth. Plants also may die back or be killed. (This is not as common in lawns.)
Get rid of mealybugs on your plants
Here are simple, DIY steps to control mealybugs on your outdoor or house plants:
Option 1: Spray with water
Take the plant outside and spray it with the hose to remove as many of the visible mealybugs as you can. Pay careful attention to where the leaves meet the stem and other crevices, as mealybugs often congregate in these areas.
Option 2: Remove by hand
Alternatively, use a cloth, cotton swab, or brush to remove the bugs and the sweet honeydew from the plant. You may have to repeat this process several times to eliminate them completely. Water with a small amount of dish soap or a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol may help.
Word to the wise: Some plants are sensitive to alcohol, so try not to get it on the plant itself.
Option 3: Use insecticidal soap or a systemic chemical solution
- Purchase and apply insecticidal soap, neem oil, or horticultural oil. These must come into contact with the mealybugs directly and work best in the nymph stage when less wax is present. Also, apply on the underside of leaves, and do a small test area if you’re treating a sensitive plant.
- Apply a systemic houseplant insecticide to the plant. As with any pesticide, this should be the last option and only used for plants that you’re not able to replace.
No matter which option you choose, re-treatments are common and should be expected. Keep a close watch on your plants after you treat them. If mealybugs return, re-treat as needed (or as directed on the label).
How to prevent mealybugs on your plants
Here are a few tips on how to prevent mealybugs from spreading among your plants.
- Isolate infested plants from other, healthy plants to prevent mealybugs from traveling from one plant to another.
- Inspect all new plants before adding them to your collection. Look carefully at where the stem and branches meet (axils) and at the bottom of the stem.
- If a plant is very heavily infested, consider getting rid of that plant.
Facts about mealybugs
Mealybugs have three life phases: egg, nymph (aka crawler because they start to move at this stage), and adult.
Rhodesgrass mealybugs are all female and reproduce without a mate. Each female will lay 300-600 eggs in a cottony sac at one time. The nymphs or crawlers then start to move away from the sac and feed at a grass node underneath a leaf sheath. At this time, they start to develop their characteristic “cotton ball” sac and continue to feed at this one location, not moving for the rest of their lives. Each mealybug will live between 60-70 days.
There is not as much research available for the Tuttle mealybug, but we know that it has mouthparts that pierce and suck plant sap and that it feeds in covered locations, such as between the blade and the stem.
Mealybugs may produce as few as one generation per year or, in places like South Florida, produce all year long. The number of generations depends on the climate and the mealybug species.
The Rhodesgrass mealybug can be found munching on over 63 genera of host plants. However, in most home lawns, you’ll find it favors these grasses:
- St. Augustinegrass
In Asia, the Tuttle mealybug prefers starchy and sweet rice and sugarcane. In the U.S., it is a pest of common weeds and grasses, primarily Zoysiagrass. Here are a few other types of grass the Tuttle mealybug will eat:
- Crowfoot grass
- Ornamental grass
- Signal grass
As sap-suckers, mealybugs won’t eat leaf tissue, as will other pests, such as caterpillars. So, don’t expect to see chunks of leaf tissue taken out of your plants. Their piercing mouthparts are like a straw that allows them to suck juice from the cells or tissues of your plants (sluuuurp!).
Both nymphs (the immature stage) and adults cause damage to plants and excrete honeydew, a sugary waste product. This honeydew creates a sticky substance on the leaves of the plant which encourages black mold to grow on the plant. Heavily infested plants or grass will turn brown or yellow and look thirsty or diseased.
Pro Tip: If you’re interested in starting a new lawn, the choice of cultivar may work for or against you if you’ve had mealybug problems in the past. Ask your supplier which varieties have shown resistance to these pests.
Size and appearance
The Rhodesgrass mealybug is dark brown but most often found within with a white, wax-like covering that looks like a cotton ball. Females produce a long “tail” or filament that extends from the end of the insect.
Tuttle mealybugs are less than 1/10 inch long and are pink in color. However, like the Rhodesgrass mealybug, they excrete a white substance that covers their body, but it is not like the “cotton ball” appearance of the Rhodesgrass mealybug. Look for white, waxy secretions on blades of grass as the best indicator of this species.
Main photo credit: SandeepHanda | Pixabay