Insect Control

Root Mealy Bugs |Mosquito Beater | BotaniGard ES | Bon-Neem Insecticidal Soap | Mite X | Slug Magic | Witch Hazel


The following ideas are both on use of insecticides and for 'greener' options for controlling pests:

Going in a 'green' direction growing cactus and succulent plants may be easier now then ever before. Growing cactus and succulent plants without extremely toxic insecticides and fungicides is easier as more organic and natural alternatives are becoming available.

In many cases cactus plants that are infested with insects like mealy bugs are very hard to save whether using insecticides or 'green' alternatives. The choices we make about how we deal with insect problems may be as much a matter of our own health as it is saving the life of the plant. It may be just as well to avoid traditional insecticides in favor of lowering our own personal risk, because infested cacti have a high mortality rate. Even if we eradicate the infestation cactus plants may die several months later as a result of the damage caused by the insects . The choices we make may seem difficult, but it is good to remember that most of the time house plants, including cactus and succulent plants, are replaceable.

Perhaps in natures dry sunny outdoor climate cactus plants have fewer pest problems than our broadleaf house plants, but in our living spaces just about any pest that can infest tropical house plants will also be able to infest most succulents and cacti too. A few examples are scales, mites, spider mites, white flies, mealy bugs, and aphids.

It is better to avoid using insecticidal soaps because they can cause permeant damage to the skin of some species. If an insecticidal soap is going to be used it may be a good idea to try a small amount on part of the plant before applying it to the whole plant. Most insecticide product labels will say whether they can be used on succulents and cacti, but some of the best products don't even mention these spiny plants on their labels. One of the most effective forms of insecticide products for succulents and cactus plants are those designed for roses. These insecticides usually include some fungicide too which will help prevent fungus from starting on the plants where the insects caused damage. The insecticide will be even more effective if it acts both topically and systemically because on a cactus insects will infest the roots of the plant as well as the body. Never leave insect infestations untreated because they will eventually cause enough damage to make plants vulnerable to fungus.

Most pests can be removed without using insecticide by cleaning the plants with rubbing alcohol or witch hazel. With the cleaning method it may also be necessary to remove the plant from soil and gently clean the root system under running water to entirely rid the plant of its infestation. if soaps or detergents are going to be used when cleaning succulents and cacti be sure to use a week concentration.

January is usually the worst time of year for houseplants, because the houseplant pests multiply rapidly and it's no longer possible to apply insecticide outdoors. If you are use to using house plant insecticides most of them will work of succulents and cactus plants too, but check the product label. If you find that you're having problems with spider mites on many of your broadleaf house plants in the winter it is very likely that they are infesting your cacti too. When it is necessary to take infested house plants to the garage or basement for a fumigation and rid them of spider mites remember to include your succulents and cactus plants too.

With all pesticides be sure to read and follow all label precautions and use only as directed. If the label says to avoid use on specific succulents or cacti then it is foolish to take chances with that product on these species of plants.   

Root Mealy Bugs

Flower & Vegetable above & below Soil Insect Granules, Eight Insect Control by Bonide

The root mealy bug is one insect which we have never found an organic or natural method of eliminating as a destructive mortal threat to cactus plants. These insects are very easy to bring home from greenhouses and they seem to be very enthusiastic about feeding on cacti. They feed on the root system and can go unnoticed for years, so that one infested flower pot may provide them the cover and time they need to infest nearly every plant you have.

They are especially serious to cacti and stapeliads because the plants will eventually die from the infestation. If you grow cactus plants and they are infested with root mealy bugs, as far as we know, you will have to use insecticide to get rid of the infestation.

The only sure natural or organic solution to getting rid of root mealy bugs is to dispose of the entire plant, soil and flower pot. If you use the throw away method and find one plant with root mealy bugs you might as well throw out all plants even if they show no signs of infestation. The choice which has to be made with these insects is whether to keep the plants and treat them with an insecticide or dispose of the plants and start over. The only way to be sure that you won't get a root mealy infestation is to start with seeds and only grow all of your plants from seeds. Thus, the only organic solutions are; to avoid all risk of getting root mealy bugs by growing plants from seeds, and the only way to get rid of root mealy bugs is to get rid of all the plants.

If you choose to use insecticide it is a good idea to do research on the web, because very few insecticides actually work on these insects. We won't list the superpower products here, but the least frightening chemical product we've found, which we use, to apply to root mealy bugs is; Flower & Vegetable above & below Soil Insect Granules, Eight Insect Control by Bonide. It can be mixed in the potting medium when the plants are transplanted or can be used as a top dressing. It is great as a top dressing because it looks sort of like small gravel and blends in with other rocks and sand.   

Mosquito Beater

Using Mosquito Beater by Bonide is a simple method of protecting them from fungus gnats. Small species of flies who lay their eggs in soils may often be attracted to globular cold hardy cacti. These kinds of flies apparently aren't a factor in the native habitats of cacti like Echinocereus, Escobaria and Pediocactus, but are very common in wetter climates. If soil flies, shore flies or fungus gnats lay eggs on the base of these plants the maggots will feed on the plants, and then the cactus plant will likely incur a deadly fungal infection where the larva were feeding. These insects can be stopped by putting this product containing Bacillus thuringiensis subsp. israelensis and this microbe is in Mosquito Beater by Bonide. Sprinkle some of this product around the cacti once a month to stop this kind of insect attacks and give the globular cacti a greater opportunity for survival.

This is also the most effective way to protect cactus seedlings from the various species of small flies whose larva feed on organic vegetative matter. These flies begin to breed in the early spring and various species will be laying eggs through the growing season and even into November. Some of these species of flies are frequent guests to house plants and even when cactus seedlings are brought indoors for the winter. Whether cactus seedlings are being grown indoors our outside this kind of protection will help protect them from fly maggots.

If you use this product called Mosquito Beater by Bonide to prevent cactus seedlings from being destroyed by fly larva there are a few considerations to keep in mind. The product can be sprinkled on the surface of the growing medium and when the seedlings are watered it will become effective. In a wet condition the product may produce some white mold, but this will subside as the surface of the soil dries out. This produce may need to be reapplied every few months and the length of time it remains effective may vary according to the frequency and amount of water being provided to the cactus seedlings.   

BotaniGard ES

This is an Emulsifiable Suspension Myconsecticide to work against numerous soft bodied insects. The label reads, "For use in controlling White flies, Aphids, Thrips, and Mealy bugs in Ornamentals and Vegetables: for Indoor/Outdoor Nursery, Greenhouse, and Landscape Use." The viable Beauveria bassiana spores are going to grow inside of and devour soft bodied insects like mealy bugs.

Mealy bugs are a serious problem for cacti and other succulents, and BotiniGard is a much greener alternative then insecticides. It is very interesting and exciting that microbiology can arive at a product like this as, "A natural soft body insect killer called BotaniGard ES Mycoinsedticide Manufactured for: Laverlam International".

This photo is of a Thelocactus hexaedrophorus that has had a persistant problem with mealy bugs. The plant has been cleaned several times with witch hazel and alcohol, but these mealy bugs kept returning. BotaniGard was applied to this cactus and the soil, then this plant was kept in a plastic bag and located in a northern window for a week. (Note: This procedure is our own and is not necessarily consistant with the product application directions.) The hexaedrophorus remained in a low light and damp condition for a week, and then was returned to the outdoors with direct sun light. Our procedure is to give the mealy bugs an even greater disadvantage for survival, because the plastic bag keeps the envronment constantly damp. This situation did product some grey fuzzy material on the plant, but turned out to be completely harmless to the cactus. A few days of wind, sun and rain got rid of the fuzzy grey material, and the mealy bugs were completely gone from this cactus.

From our own use of this product we have some tips:

1. Warm conditions are better, and keeping the treated plants above 60 °F and below 85 °F increases the effectiveness of the Beauveria bassiana spores.

2. High humidity helps, and if air conditions are dry it will be benifictil to artificially creat an environment which maximizes the amount of moisture in the air around the treated plants.

3. Make sure the BotaniGard solution comes in contact with the entire surface of the plants. Natural features of some cacti like felt, wool and hair can prevent the solution from reaching the the skin of the stems, so take care to make sure the solution completely covers the plants. The roots of the plants will also need to be treated, and saturating the soil is one way to completely reach all parts of the roots.   

Bon-Neem Insecticidal Soap

This botanical alterantive is a natural source from tree oil insecticide called "Bon-Neem Insecticidal Soap" made by "Bonide". The label says the ingredient for this product is, "Derived from the Botanical Oils of Indian Neem Tree Seeds". The use of this product according to the label is to, "Treat ornamental trees, shrubs & plants in and around the home or flowers, bedding plants & ornamental vegetables grown outdoors or in greenhouses", and also says, "for use on lawns." The kinds of pests listed are, "Controls: aphids, Mealy bugs, Scale Crawlers, Spider Mites, Thrips, White flies and other listed pests."

Care needs to be taken on using any insecticidal soap on cacti, and it may be a good idea to test on a small area of one plant before treating whole plants.. Cactus plants have waxes and oils in their skin that could be damaged by any kind of soap or detergent product, so care must be taken when using any insecticidal soap on these plants.

On the inside label there are very specific directions for use of this product and there are circumstances of application that need to be understood to kill the insects without harming the plants. There are a few kinds of succulent plants listed which the instructions recommend avoiding treating with Bon-Neem. This is the first label I've read that recognizes the fact that mealy bugs often live on the roots of cactus plants, and there are directions for treating cactus plants for root infestations.   

Mite X

This product, made by "Bonide" sports the name, "Mite X" , which stirs the imagination to think - this must what I need to eliminate those ever returning spider mites. The label says, "Controls Mites, Thrips & Aphids" and "Kills eggs and adults", and this is a "Reduced risk pesticide, Made from Plants and Plant Extracts, and a Safe, effective Results From Botanical Extracts." The ingredients are "Made from Plants and Plant Extracts." The label says to, "Use on flowers ornamentals, herbs, fruit, vegetables, roses, bedding plants, shade trees and greenhouses."

Spider mites are a natural part of many outdoor environments and every year some of our broad leaf house plants and columnar cacti become infestations with spider mites. Spider mites are an ongoing problem, because they can jump to house plants from other plants living outdoors in the summer. Mites seem to be plentyful in almost every climate, and along with several other kinds of insects, there are plenty of oportunities to use this kind of product.   

Slug Magic

This is a slug bait called "Slug Magic" made by "Bonide" and the label says, "Makes Slugs Disappear," and "Can Be Used Around Pets and Wildlife." The way it works is that it "Bait & Kills " and the label reads, "the bait is attractive to slugs and snails and lures them from their hiding places and plants." The label also reads, "For use around vegetables, fruit trees, citrus, berries, ornamentals, shrubs, flowers, trees lawns, gardens and in greenhouses." Interestingly this product "Remains effective after rain or sprinkling" and if slugs are a problem it's going to be when there is plenty of rain and sprinklings.

I imagine most people who live in dry climates would have a difficult time understanding why a slug product could be important for growing cacti. However, being able to get rid of slugs is very important to those of us who grow cacti in climates when rain can persist for several days at at time. Slugs usually can't gain access to outdoor potted cactus plants or those living in dry gravel covered rock gardens unless rainy weather lasts for more than 4 days. When the rain stays and stays slugs reproduce quickly, and if they find the cacti and begin to feed on them the results are very bad. It is often difficult to see the damage slugs do as they eat away on the cactus stems, and once they've eaten part of the stem there is little chance for the cactus to live much longer. Slugs eat very little of the cactus plants but they will cause the cacti to rot from fungal infestations a few weeks to a few months after the slugs have done their damage.

Some varieties of cacti seem to be magnets for slugs, and Gymnocalycium, Glandulicactus, and Sclerocactus are some generics that almost absolutely require the use of slug bait if their flower pots are places outdoors.   

Witch Hazel

We have found a couple of witch hazel products which have shown themselves to be useful to us in cactus growing applications. Witch Hazels are products typically designed to be used on human skin, but we are using these products to eliminate molds and insects from plants.

"Medicated Superhazel with Aloe Vera," made by "Thayers," contains clove oil which is toxic to insects, and unfortunately can harm plants tissue too. We’ve used it to dip and clean new plants and rid them of mealy bug infestations. Most of the time it works very well, but occasionally the mealy bugs have survived.

Witch hazels seem to fail as a spray on potted plants because mealy bugs often live on the roots of cacti. Cleaning the mealy off of the stem of the plant in such a case will only rid the plant of part of its infestation. The way to get this witch hazel to kill insects like mealy bugs is to take the plants out of their soil and dip the plants in witch hazel for a while. The witch hazel needs to be rinsed off of the cacti with water, then allow the plants to dry and replant them in new soil.

As an alternative to insecticides this witch hazel has cleaned the mealy off of many of our cacti and succulents. We've used this Medicated Superhazel as a cleaning solution to remove mealy bugs, and in many cases this product has successfully killed off the insects.   


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