When compared to larger pests such as grasshoppers, snails, or beetles able to feed on plants directly, sap-suckers can be some of the more manageable insects in the garden if spotted early. They are soft-bodied and an early infestation can be easy to eradicate, usually with nothing more than a garden hose, DIY soap spray, or ladybugs from your local nursery. Sap-sucking insects are much smaller and have adapted mouths to pierce the skin of a leaf to feed on essential sap, soft tissue, and mesophyll. Early signs of infestation may be difficult to diagnose because sap-suckers are carriers of many diseases likely affecting your plant along with the loss of vital chloroplasts and sugars. Below are some quick tips to identify and rid your home and garden of five of the most problematic sap-suckers. Check out our Pest & Insect Guides for a more comprehensive look at each of these nuisant visitors.
How to Get Rid of Sap-Suckers
- High pressure hose for established perennials and trees
- Organic neem oil spray for annuals and houseplants
- Mix 1 tbsp of liquid castile or dish soap to 32oz water for cheap DIY spray
- Add a pinch of cayenne pepper to any spray, oil, or pesticide
- Store-bought ladybugs or lacewing larvae from your local nursery
Aphids are some of the most notorious pests in the home and garden as they are known to infest just about anything from large fruiting trees to small indoor orchids. Of the 1300+ species found in North America, the most widespread is the green peach aphid (Myzus persicae) which, don’t let the name fool you, is troublesome to dozens more plants than just peach trees. The green peach aphid has a pear-shaped, translucent lime green body and is generally easy to detect early on in houseplants. Larger outdoor crops such as stone fruit and rose bushes may not show immediate signs of infestation until it’s grown so large that leaves begin to curl and wilt.
Perennials and established annuals can be simply sprayed off with a high pressure nozzle on any garden hose without need for sprays or pesticides. Tender annuals such as brassicas and leafy greens or more delicate houseplants can be treated with store-bought neem oil and is usually enough to quickly smother an infestation. For a cheap and effective DIY option, mix one tablespoon of either liquid castile soap or dish soap to about 32 ounces and spray affected areas.
Spider Mites are one spider you don’t want in your garden as this miniature member of the Arachnid family is more closely related to ticks and scorpions and is one of the least beneficial species known. Whether on an indoor orchid or a perennial berry bush, an advanced spider mite infestation can be easily identified by the unmistakable spider webbing and swarming, amber-orange bodies. While not all spider mites will be similar in color, the most common spider mite in all of North America is the two-spotted spider mite (Tetranychus urticae) which can often seem more red as the infestation grows.
Unlike their carnivorous relatives in the Arachnid family, spider mites only feed on interior tissue and sugars of the leaf and do not use their webbing to lure or trap prey. Instead, the webbing is merely intended to protect the swarm and their eggs whereas individual spider mites generally do not. Spider mites are known to thrive on hundreds of crops especially those in unusually hot and dry garden beds and windowsills. While organic neem oil spray is one of the most effective methods to suppress a spider mite infestation, store-bought ladybugs are one of the most timeless ways to manage nearly any pest as just one ladybug is capable of consuming more than 5,000 aphids in its brief lifespan.
Mealybugs are one of the easiest pests to identify in the garden because of their uniquely white, powdery, and “mealy” appearance when compared to other miniscule sap-suckers such as aphids or spider mites. Mealybugs are a type of scale insect broadly classified by their hard shell, crustacean-like anatomy, and exterior waxy coating. Unlike most insects, there is little variety among mealybugs as the overwhelming majority of species are white or some lighter variation. The most common mealybug in the world is the invasive Asian citrus mealybug (Planococcus citri) known to infest nearly any crop in any garden offering warm and humid greenhouse conditions.
Although an untrained eye can understandably mistake a mealybug nest of eggs for that of a spider, a mealybug infestation looks more similar to the haphazard “webbing” of mold rather than the intentional intricacy of a true spider web. Mealybugs are exclusive to greenhouses and the warm tropics and can be easily killed in chilled weather by placing an infested host plant anywhere that potentially could dip down to at least 60° F.
Thrips are one of the few winged sap-suckers in the garden, since most winged pests are large enough to feed on foliage and fruit directly. Thrips are easily recognized in the garden and difficult to confuse for other sap-suckers as their bodies are long and thin with a pair of wings that extend their entire length. Despite the sets of wings, thrips are not strong fliers and merely use the wings to help propel them from plant-to-plant rather than extended migrations. Thrips are generally solitary pests that only swarm when food is scarce, only then causing some potential discoloration and crop loss.
The most prevalent species of thrips in the country are onion thrips (Thrips tabaci) known to feed on nearly anything grown in the home garden including root vegetables, brassicas, leafy greens, and ornamental flowers. Thrips leave behind a silvery iridescent streak when feeding not too dissimilar from a slug, which can help in identifying an early infestation. Host plants damaged by thrips wilt and curl just like any other plant attacked by sap-suckers, yet those infested by thrips are susceptible to nearly twice as many disease and discoloration.
Squash Bugs can be one of the easier pests to identify in the garden because they have a very selective diet and are only found on about five or six crops in the squash family. Squash bugs exclusively feed on thicker-skinned squash and melons within the Cucurbitaceae family such as winter squash, summer squash, pumpkin, and watermelon while occasionally known to infest cucumber and cantaloupe. Squash bugs are not difficult to identify by their elongated grayish-brown hardshell bodies that appear to have been pressed flat along with their six legs seemingly flattened at right angles. Squash bugs are often mistaken for stink bugs but, to the trained eye, squash bugs are far more elongated and rounded than the jagged stink bug.
Because squash bugs are somewhat exclusive to large outdoor crops they can be easily sprayed off with a high pressure setting on any garden hose. Generally a high-pressure hose is more than enough to remove a swarming population but, for squash bugs, connect a solution sprayer to your nozzle to fill with dish or castile soap, creating a soapy and high-pressure solution. Squash bugs are a little bigger and more tenacious than aphids or mites.