4 Ways to Get Rid of Scale Insects Naturally

Scale has kind of been the bane of my existence. It came in on an aloe plant, and was a total bear to battle. We don’t have any outdoor space here, so all of my plants are somewhat in proximity to one another. As you can probably guess, this makes controlling pests a bit of a challenge.

Lately, I feel like the worst plant parent ever. See, my S.O. and I got this little Norfolk pine as a live Yule tree about two years ago. I love it, like I do all of my plants, and try my best to keep it healthy.

Unfortunately, up until recently, “my best” did not include “knowing what pests it’s susceptible to.” It’s got spikes all over, it has really aromatic sap, it never goes outside… what could possibly want to eat it?

As it turns out, in addition to being spiky and smelling piney, it is also irresistibly delicious to scale insects. I’m not going to lie, I cried a little when I found out. I felt like I failed as a caretaker.

Close up of scale insects.

Notice the dust and cat hair? As scale insects feed, they excrete a very sticky, sugary substance called “honeydew.” This can end up attracting other pests, encouraging mold growth, and, if the plant’s indoors, catching a ton of dust.

What are scale insects?

Scale insects are tormentors sent directly from Satan’s fiery butthole.

… Okay, but for real, they’re awful. They’re insects that latch onto plants and pretty much suck them dry. They’re also flattish, usually brown or beige, and the adults don’t move at all, so they blend in very well with their environment. It’s really easy to mistake them for plant tissue, especially if there aren’t many. Trouble is, their populations can grow pretty fast.

Scale insects on a Norfolk pine twig.

To give you an idea of how small and unobtrusive scale can be, even when there’s a ton of them.

Outdoors, scale insects aren’t usually a huge problem. Sure, they move in, but a healthy plant and a thriving population of predatory insects and birds will keep them from causing serious damage. So, in the wild (or the “wilds” of a garden, at least) they’re much more of an easily ignored nuisance than an actual problem.

For indoor plants, it’s more of an issue. Being otherwise healthy isn’t always enough for a potted plant to keep scale at bay, most homes don’t keep predatory lacewings or ladybugs as pets, and natural Bti pest control only works on bugs that are both in soil and susceptible to Bti bacterial toxins.

So, what do you do when one of your plants turns into a scale bug buffet?

To me, part of being a good steward is doing things that don’t have a negative ripple effect. For this reason, I try my hardest to avoid systemic pesticides, or any pesticides that could potentially harm anything other than the pests I’m trying to target. In a perfect world, I could just relocate unwanted bugs instead of killing them. That’s not this world, though, and I have more of a responsibility toward the plants I’ve taken into my care than I do to the pests attacking them. That’s why, when these critters rear their (nonexistent. Seriously, they are so flat) heads, I:

1. Prune, prune, prune.

A lot of plant tissue that’s been seriously damaged by scale won’t recover. If the bugs have heavily infested a certain branch or leaf, or have dried things out too much, it’s best to just cut it. Pruning away the areas where scale insects have latched on the most will immediately and drastically lower their numbers, making it easier for other measures to work.

Once you’ve identified and removed affected limbs, leaves, and other plant parts, then it’s time to start stage 2.

2. Rub them with alcohol.

Scale insects, like mealybugs, are protected by a waterproof waxy coating. This doesn’t just keep water out, it keeps moisture in. One way to get rid of scale insects is to disrupt this natural coating, which causes them to dehydrate.

Rubbing alcohol is a fast, cheap way to do this. Unfortunately, it can also harm plant tissue, so it has to be applied individually by hand. Fill a jar with alcohol, grab some cotton swabs, and start hunting the bugs down. When you see one, dip the swab in the alcohol, and give it a rub. Most times, the scale insect will come right off. Those that remain will dry out and die.

3. Soap them up.

Soap is another way to tackle the young, mobile stage of scale. It doesn’t take much, either — a few tablespoons in a gallon of water will do the trick.

As with rubbing alcohol, this has to come into contact with the scale to be effective, and will most likely need a couple of reapplications. Too much soap can also harm sensitive plants, so it’s best to start will a relatively low concentration and test it on a small area before going whole-hog.

To start with, I mix:

  • 2.5 T Castile soap
  • 1 gal water
  • 2 T cooking oil (usually grapeseed) — optional

If that doesn’t seem to harm the plant, I might go up to:

  • 5 T Castile soap
  • 1 gal water
  • 2 T cooking oil — optional

Once it’s mixed up, add it to a sprayer or spray bottle and thoroughly spray any areas showing signs of scale. This soap solution also has to come into contact with the insects in order to kill them, so be as thorough as you can without harming your plants. The cooking oil helps smother the bugs, but can easily be left out.

Using actual soap is important here — detergents and some surfactants aren’t great for plants, and their potential for harm may outweigh their scale-killing benefits. I like to use Dr. Bronner’s soap for this, because it’s inexpensive and readily available everywhere from the fancy organic market to the Giant down the block. If that doesn’t work for you, try your regular dish liquid, just test it on a small area to make sure your plants won’t be damaged.

As with anything else of this nature, use the lowest effective concentration of soap. If 2.5 tablespoons seems to be working alright for you, 5 tablespoons won’t necessarily be any more effective.

4. Dust them.

Diatomaceous earth is amazing stuff. I dust it under all of my appliances because, while my particular domicile doesn’t have an ongoing bug problem, we invariably get one or two trying to take refuge when pest control shows up to treat the basement or one of the other units. Such is apartment life.

Diatomaceous earth looks like a white powder. On a microscopic level, though, it is actually made up of needle-sharp splinters of the shells of tiny creatures called diatoms. These splinters are so tiny that they’re incapable of piercing skin, so diatomaceous earth is safe around people and pets. (Just don’t inhale it!) However, while they can’t injure us, they wreak absolute havoc on insects. The tiny splinters pierce and abrade their shells, which causes them to dehydrate.

To use diatomaceous earth, either dust plants with an applicator (the dust is very fine and so tends to clump together a bit, using an applicator gives a nice, light, even coating) after watering, or mix into a solution like the soap mixture given above. Shake it vigorously as you work, because the powder will settle pretty quickly.

As a warning, diatomaceous earth is not selective. Think of it like microscopic barbed wire — it’s going to injure anything that tries to cross it, not just the things you want it to get. So, if your plants spend time outdoors, drape them with a sheet while you’re letting the powder take effect. This will protect bees, ladybugs, lacewings, and other beneficial insects from injury.

 

Scale insects are an enormous pain. They can hide in tiny spaces and suck your plants dry, and getting rid of them involves vigilance and thoroughness. With these measures, you should be able to control scale on your plants without having to resort to pesticides.

Oh, and… Don’t do what I did. Read up on what pests your plants are susceptible to!

 

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Deepening Resilience: Hoping for the best, expecting the worst.

Learn more about Deepening Resilience here, or read my previous post in this series here

“Climate change” seems like such a soft term, doesn’t it? George Carlin talked about how euphemistic “global warming” and the “greenhouse effect” sounded, and I agree with him — warm sounds cozy, a house is a home, and greenhouses grow things. Climate change doesn’t really seem to encapsulate the full scope of acidifying oceans, dust-choked air, and the creeping horror of feeling your muscles freeze stiff in the deathgrip of a polar vortex, either.

If you can’t tell, I find the whole thing pretty frightening.

Part of it is that I worry for all of the people hurt the worst by it. This is especially true because the people most affected by climate change are women, especially those in developing nations where poor infrastructure creates additional barriers to preparedness. As long as low income women are the ones experiencing the worst of climate change, you will never get the people capable of making a global impact to care.

Part of it is knowing how many animals suffer because of climate change. Unless they’re cute and marketable, though, the people capable of making a global impact still won’t care.

Part of it is a gnawing dread, like watching a slow-motion car wreck. Knowing that there is a tipping point at which we can no longer do anything (how are we going to capture all of the methane currently trapped in melting ice?). Knowing that we’re pretty much there. Knowing that those with the ability to hit the breaks, aren’t.

Part of it is pure self-interest. Extremes in temperature mess me up. The heat makes my brain feel like its being crushed, I can’t breathe, and my heart pounds. The cold makes every limb feel swarmed with fire ants. Knowing that these extremes are only going to be worse, and come more often, isn’t comforting.

Climate change isn’t necessarily the kind of thing you can prepare for. Sure, you can develop a Bartertown-style compound for surviving a Mad Maxesque, worst-case-scenario apocalypse, but that only lasts as long as your ability to defend it does. Investing in gold or other concrete things would make for a great updated retelling of The Cock and the Jewel. Land and supplies are only as good as your ability to keep them, and even the most ardent stockpiler will run out of bullets, eventually.

Personally, I’m not sure how I’d prepare even if I were entirely able-bodied. I know how to grow food and forage, but this is only helpful as long as the right conditions for growing things last. With the weather weirding and disappearing pollinators, I have no misapprehensions about being able to feed myself. I have other useful skills I could barter, but that isn’t really bankable in such an extreme scenario.

I feel the most prepared when I open myself to the possibility of disaster. It might sound fatalistic, but death positivity has done more to help make me an effective person than anything else. When I embrace the fact that everything is probably not going to be okay, when I can look in the face of the absolute certainty that I’m going to die of something at some point, it’s freeing because I don’t have to worry about it anymore. I can hope and work for the best, but expect (and accept) the worst. Death, itself, holds no fear for me.

As trite as it is, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. There are things that can be done now (not “things we can do” — there is very little, on a day-to-day level, that individuals can do to stop climate change), and the people preventing them are not gods.

DIY Brain Chemistry

I’ve been doing a lot of reading.

I don’t want to call it “research,” because looking up a bunch of studies isn’t really the same as designing an experiment or compiling a meta analysis, but it’s a lot of reading nonetheless.

See, for years, I’ve been trying to find ways to mitigate some Brain Things. It isn’t purely panic disorder, because there are some very evident physiological aspects to that aren’t really adequately explained by anxiety. It also isn’t purely physical, either.

The first doctor I ever discussed it with was my pediatrician. I was thirteen, had begun experiencing regular panic attacks, and my mother was tired of it.

“It’s anxiety,” he said. And that was it.

It went untreated for years — I was told it was all in my head, that the liver absorbs adrenaline in under a minute (lol what), and there was no reason for any panic attack to last longer than that. This left me with two things:

  1. A raging, untreated panic disorder.
  2. A diagnosis of anxiety.

Getting diagnosed with anxiety is a curse in its own right, particularly if you’re medically female. Women’s pain is often ignored as it is, particularly for black women. If you have a history of anxiety and depression, it is downright impressive how many medical conditions it’ll get blamed for. (Like the time I was given SSRIs to treat a symptomatic hemangioma. Fun!)

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The Science in Magic.

I don’t think I’ve ever really talked about how much work goes into something like, say, making a magical oil.

I used to work in a chem lab — I did soil and water analysis for an environmental testing company. I loved the job, and worked there up until I was no longer physically able. It was challenging, rewarding, and allowed me to work a job that paid my bills and didn’t require me to sacrifice my principles.

All of this is to say, I really dig the science underlying the patently unscientific things I do.

essential-oils-2536405_1280

I’ll give you an example. There’s one particular divination tool I’m in the process of working on. It hasn’t been easy, and it has required a lot of research. Not only did I have to delve into the magical properties and folklore of all of the ingredients, I also had to figure out their respective contents of estragole, anethole, thujone, and other compounds that are soluble in alcohol, but only weakly soluble (or completely insoluble) in water. Hopefully, this will yield a final product that not only has the magical properties I desire, but the physical properties I need to work the way I want it to.

Another example is oil. Sure, most of the oils I make are infused, not dilutions of essential oil, but I still need to be mindful of their capacity for toxicity, unwanted side-effects, and (perhaps most importantly) sensitization. I’ve been in the process of re-working a recipe to guard against nightmares for weeks, just to yield an anointing oil that will protect your sleep and not give you a rash at the same time.

Of course, sometimes the toxicity is the point. I don’t walk the poison path in the same way other witches might. At the moment, with my particular health challenges, the risk is not necessarily worth the reward when I have other herbs and tools at my disposal. But “the dose makes the poison,” and the poison path is a rewarding one nonetheless.

It’s fun process, albeit a frustrating one. I do get a fair amount of people who roll their eyes, and ask me why I even bother for something they see as fake to begin with. It’s the kind of thing where, for people who understand, no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t, none is possible.

Besides, the challenge is half of the fun.

 

 

 

Is Bti water safe to drink? Or, Natural Pest Control for Paranoid Plant Keepers.

So, plants.

I have a lot of them. What witch hasn’t kept a pot of something on a windowsill somewhere, you know? In a previous incarnation of this blog, I talked about everything from trying to grow a rosemary bush, to collecting cacti, to that time my aloe plant absolutely would not stop reproducing. In short, I really like plants.

Unfortunately, my place doesn’t have any outdoor space to speak of. (None that I can use, anyway.) As a result, I have roughly one plant per 20 ft², and counting. The trouble is, not all of them are cacti — I also have a number of tropical plants that become really, really unhappy if they aren’t kept moist. I live in a very humid area, which they seem to enjoy, but…

Fungus gnats, though.

plant.jpg

My poor, bedraggled fern…

Fungus gnats like moist soil. They deposit their eggs in it, and, before you know it, you’ve got masses of annoying, tiny gnats swarming around all of your plants. They’re not the only bugs that really dig on some wet dirt, either. When you combine plants that need to be kept moist with high humidity, it’s pretty much the ideal breeding ground for all kinds of tiny, annoying pests that are super enthusiastic about living in your pots.

Gross.

I try to use natural pest control. My space is small, so I have to minimize my ability to inadvertently come in contact with pesticide. I also have two cats, so I really, really need to keep their exposure risk as low as possible. Since I don’t really have an outdoor hose/spigot I can use, any watering or diluting I do has to be done in either my kitchen or bathroom sink. Also, I try to avoid releasing any more pesticide/fungicide/herbicide into the sewer system than I absolutely have to.

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