Tipping the Scales
Last week as I was basking in the shade of the Chinese Elms (Ulmus parvifolia) in my yard, I noticed some strange lumps on the twigs. Upon further investigation, I realized the “lumps” were scales. Scale insects are serious pests of a number of ornamental plants. Here in Florida there are 13 different families of scales with the most common being armored scales, soft scales, and mealybugs. Scales have piercing-sucking mouthparts which they use to siphon fluids from the leaves, stems, and sometimes roots of many ornamental plants. Heavy infestations cause extensive leaf yellowing, premature leaf drop, branch dieback, and eventually plant death.
The life cycle of a scale begins with eggs being laid beneath wax coverings or beneath the adult female. Eggs typically hatch in 1 to 3 weeks. The newly hatched nymphs, called crawlers, move around a plant until they find a spot to feed. Once a feeding site is located, their piercing sucking mouthparts are inserted into the plant and the crawlers begin to feed and grow. The males of many scale species develop wings as adults and fly to other plants to reproduce.
Armored scales get their armor by secreting a waxy covering over their bodies that is not attached. The scale lives under this covering and uses it as a protection to feed under. Armored scales can be almost any color or shape and range anywhere from 1/16 to 1/8 inch in diameter. For females, these shapes range from circular to oval to long and slender. The males typically have coverings that are more elongate and smaller than the females. As adults, the males are tiny, winged, gnat-like insects and are rarely seen.
Similar to armored scales, soft scales secrete a waxy covering, but it is attached to their bodies. Soft scales can be a number of colors, shapes, and sizes and range anywhere from 1/8 to 1/2 inch in diameter. Their shapes vary from spherical to nearly flat.
Mealybugs are soft-bodied insects that possess a covering of flocculent, white, waxy filaments. They are about 1/8 inch in length and usually pinkish or yellowish in color. Mealybugs have piercing-sucking mouthparts which they use to siphon fluids from the leaves, stems, and sometimes roots of many ornamental plants. Mealybug damage produces discolored, wilted, and deformed leaves.
Scale and Mealybug Management
- Cultural Control – Plant inspection prior to purchase or installation is the first line of defense against a scale or mealybug population. Make sure to inspect the undersides of leaves and plant stems. Infested sections of plants can be pruned and plant material should be cleaned from the planting area and discarded. Also, you can increase air flow and decrease humidity by proper installation and pruning. Over-fertilizing can also increase pest populations.
- Biological Control – Predators, such as ladybugs and green lacewings, are usually present in large enough numbers to suppress scales and mealybugs to a desirable threshold. However, broad-spectrum insecticides and bad weather can reduce predator numbers. Look for signs of predation by inspecting dead scales for jagged holes in their waxy coatings. If predation signs are present, use more selective chemical controls and oils as opposed to broad-spectrum products.
- Chemical Control – Timing is everything when it comes to managing scale and mealybug insects. Crawler activity is more pronounced with the flush of new plant growth in the spring. Before application, prune infested plant parts off first to promote greater penetration of insecticides into the foliage. Contact products (acephate, bifenthrin, carbaryl, etc.) must be applied to inhibit the crawler stages of these insects and systemic products (acetamiprid, imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, etc.) can be used on the sessile growth stage. Plants should be sprayed thoroughly to the point of drip or “run off” from leaves, twigs, and stems. Repeated applications may still be necessary even if the timing is right, as crawler populations are often large and crawlers like to hide under old waxy scales. Systemic drenches are also a viable option. With good spray coverage, horticultural oils can kill scales at all stages of growth. Refer to the product label for phytotoxicity and temperature guidelines. Even after successful treatment, the outer coatings of the scales may remain on the plant material for weeks, which can be unsightly. The best way to determine if scales are dead is to squeeze them. They will be dry when squeezed if they are dead and they will ooze liquids if they are living (they were at least alive to the point of being squashed).
For insect identification and additional information on scale control, please see: