Tim Lockley: Time to bring some plants indoors, but look out for the bugs

It's fall, and it's time to get ready to bring some of your plants inside for the Winter.

Getting ready starts with checking them for pests. Outside, Mama Nature supplies you with natural controls for most pests. Once they're in your house, Big Mama loses her influence and pests can bloom into major problems before you know it.

One of the most common of these pests are mealy bugs, which are sap-sucking insects that look like the fuzzy end of a Q-tip. The cottony coating is secreted by the bugs to protect them from predators and parasites.

Under that coating is a flattened bug up to 5 millimeters long. The color can range from grey to pink to yellow. They feed by sucking large quantities of fluids from the host plant in order to get the relatively small amount of protein in the sap.

The excess is secreted in the form of a sticky substance called honeydew. The honeydew winds up on the leaf below the mealy bug and is an almost perfect medium for the growth of sooty mold.

Most species of mealy bugs are colonial and can be found congregating where the leaf joins the stems, on growing tips and along leaf veins. Ants will often show up along with the mealy bugs. They are attracted to the honeydew since it is high in sugar content. Some ants "farm" mealy bugs; transporting them from plant to plant and protecting them from predators.

Proper watering, fertilization and sources of light can help your plants to resist pests (and diseases). Because of the waxy coating most mealy bugs have, topical applications of insecticides tend not to be as effective as you'd wish.

Systemics such as Orthene, or Bayer Rose and Flower Spray should take care of any infestations. In severe cases, judicious pruning might be necessary. If you prune, double bag the clippings and dispose of immediately and clean your tools.

Young mealy bugs can be dispersed by the wind. Safer's soap is another option. With Safer's, you'll need to completely spray your plant every week for at least four weeks.

This length of time is necessary. You can't kill an egg until it hatches. If you only have a few bugs on your plants, an application of alcohol dabbed on with a Q-tip should do the job.

Check your plants every week and reapply the alcohol as necessary. Avoid using alcohol on the tender growing tips. For those of you opposed to pesticides of any type, pick the bugs off of the plant manually or use a strong jet of water. For the adventurous among you, just squash the buggers between your fingers.

Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535.