Scale insects can cause extensive damage to the plants around your home, but with some expert advice and the right treatments you can save yourself from more trouble ahead. The bugs known as scale are tiny sap-sucking insects that grow protective shells as adults and rarely move around once they do. They may never leave a plant if they find a safe spot to feed and grow.
Scale likes to hide on the underside of leaves and sometimes against the skin or bark of a branch. Because their shells often make them hard to see against a leaf or stem, you may not notice a scale infestation until some damage has already been done.
Different types of scale can be found throughout the United States, but they fall into two main groups—soft scale and armored scale.
Soft scales excrete a sticky substance called honeydew after feeding. This causes dark, sooty mold to grow on the host plant, slowing its growth and sometimes causing plant death.
Armored scales live under a separate protective covering that also helps them blend in with the bark of host plants. Armored scales do not produce honeydew and are generally less active movers than soft scale.
The most common treatment for scale is a spray of horticultural oil or neem oil that will smother the insects on the plant’s surface if applied thoroughly. You should check that the oil solution you choose is safe to use on the plants you’re treating. It’s also important to consider sunlight exposure and temperature when using horticultural oils—they may react to these factors in a way that causes harm to the plants.
If you’re dealing with a more severe infestation of scale, we recommend a systemic root drench—that means soaking the roots around a plant with insecticide that will be absorbed into the plant and spread throughout the branches and leaves. This insecticide is then consumed by the scale insects and results in their death.
A systemic application like this one will provide longer lasting protection against scale insects but does take longer to become effective. Because of this, you may want to try a surface oil application in addition to a root drench for ongoing protection. This is also the best way to prevent new scale invaders from finding a home on your plants.
If you only see a small number of scale insects on your plants, you can remove them with rubbing alcohol applied with cotton or a sponge. The alcohol will kill the insects and they can be wiped off by hand, but this may not be a permanent solution. You will likely see scale insects on the same plants soon if no further action is taken.
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