Adult scale insects are usually covered in waxy shell-like cover. There are more than 25 species of scale insect found in British Gardens. Each species has a different host range and life cycle. They feed by sucking sap and some can weaken host plants, many excrete a sticky substance (honeydew), which allows the growth of sooty moulds.
Scientific name: Various species
Plants affected: Many greenhouse and garden fruits and ornamental plants
Main symptom: Scales on stems and leaves, sooty moulds on foliage
Most active: Year round
What are scale insects?
There many different species of scale insects that can suck the sap from garden and glasshouse plants in Britain. They range in size from less than 1mm to over 1cm in diameter. Many species excrete a sticky, sugary substance, honeydew. Some species also produce white, waxy egg masses on stems or the undersides of leaves, this can be mistaken for mealybug or woolly aphid.
Scale insects can be found on a wide range of ornamental plants, fruit trees and bushes grown out of doors. Several species of scale insects are confined to house-plants, those growing in greenhouses or other sheltered places.
You may see the following symptoms:
- Scales or shell-like bumps on plant stems and the underside of leaves. These are the outer coverings of scale insect
- Large populations may result in poor growth
- Some species of scale insect excrete honeydew, which accumulates on the upper leaf surfaces. This can be colonised by a black non-parasitic fungus known as sooty mould
- Some scale insects deposit their eggs under a covering of white waxy fibres in early summer
Check susceptible plants frequently from spring onwards so action can be taken before a damaging population has developed. When choosing control options you can minimise harm to non-target animals by starting with the methods in the non-pesticide control section. If this is not sufficient to reduce the damage to acceptable levels then you may choose to use pesticides. Within this group the shorter persistence pesticides (that are usually certified for organic growing) are likely to be less damaging to non-target wildlife than those with longer persistence and/or systemic action.
Light infestations are of little consequence and can be tolerated. The best time to treat heavy attacks is when the more vulnerable nymphs are present, for many scales out of doors this is during mid-late summer. Scale insects on indoor plants can breed all year round and so there is no best time of year to treat. Note that dead scales can remain firmly attached to the plants. The success of any treatment can be gauged by the extent to which new growth remains free of scale insects
- Where possible tolerate populations of scale insects. Well-tended healthy plants are able to tolerate light populations of these insects and so they do not necessarily require control
- Adult scales and egg masses can be removed when seen but this may not reduce large populations
- Encourage predators in the garden, some ladybirds, parasitoid wasps and some birds will eat scale insects
- The nematode Steinernema feltiae can be purchased as a biological control of soft scale and hemispherical; it is available from some Biological control suppliers
The RHS believes that avoiding pests, diseases and weeds by good practice in cultivation methods, cultivar selection, garden hygiene and encouraging or introducing natural enemies, should be the first line of control. If chemical controls are used, they should be used only in a minimal and highly targeted manner.
- For scales on deciduous plants including edible fruits, a plant oil winter wash (considered organic e.g. Growing Success Winter Tree Wash) can be used. This can control the overwintering scale nymphs in December-January when the plants are fully dormant
- With grape vines, peel away the loose outer bark to expose the scales before treatment
- Organic sprays, such as natural pyrethrum (e.g. Bug Clear Gun for Fruit & Veg, Neudorff Bug Free Bug and Larvae Killer), fatty acids (e.g. Doff Greenfly & Blackfly Killer) or plant oils (e.g. Vitax Plant Guard Pest & Disease Control, Bug Clear for Fruit and Veg) can give good control of scale insect nymphs. These pesticides have a very short persistence and so may require reapplication to keep scale numbers in check. Plant oil and fatty acid products are less likely to affect larger insects such as ladybird adults
- Plant invigorators combine nutrients to stimulate plant growth with surfactants or fatty acids that have a physical mode of action (e.g. Ecofective Bug Control, RHS Bug and Mildew Control, SB Plant Invigorator and Westland Resolva Natural Power Bug & Mildew). These are not considered organic
- More persistent contact-action insecticides include the synthetic pyrethroids lambda-cyhalothrin (e.g. Westland Resolva Bug Killer), deltamethrin (e.g. Provanto Ultimate Fruit & Vegetable Bug Killer, Provanto Sprayday Greenfly Killer) and cypermethrin (e.g. Py Bug Killer)
- A systemic containing the active ingredient Flupyradifurone (Provanto Smart Bug Killer) is available for use on ornamentals and selected edibles
- The systemic neonicotinoid insecticide acetamiprid (e.g. Bug Clear Ultra) is also available
Plants in flower should not be sprayed due to the danger to bees and other pollinating insects
Inclusion of a pesticide product does not indicate a recommendation or endorsement by RHS Gardening Advice. It is a list of products currently available to the home gardener.
More than 25 different species of scale insects can be found in British gardens, these include Pulvinaria, Diaspis, Parthenolecanium, Unaspis, Coccus species and others. They suck sap from the leaves and stems of their host plants. They are mostly 1-6mm (less than ¼in) long, although wisteria scale, Eulecanium excrescens, can be up to 10mm (about ½in), and vary in shape and colour.
All species have a shell-like waxy covering over their bodies when mature. The eggs are often laid under the protection of this shell but with the cushion scales (eg Pulvinaria species) the eggs are deposited outside the scale under a mass of white waxy fibres.
The adults are sedentary but newly-hatched nymphs crawl actively over the plant surface and spread the infestation.
Scale insects in greenhouses can breed continuously throughout the year but those species that infest outdoor plants mostly have one generation a year.
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