Scale insects

Scales are limpet-like insects that feed by sucking sap from a wide range of plants, including houseplants, greenhouse plants and many fruit and ornamental plants grown outdoors. There are more than 25 species of scale insect in the UK Scale insects can weaken plants and some excrete a sticky substance (honeydew) on foliage, which allows the growth of black, sooty moulds.

Scale insects on bay. Image: RHS, Horticultural Science

Quick facts

Common name Scale insects
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 are many different species of scale insects that attack cultivated plants. These sap-sucking insect pests can weaken the growth of a wide range of plants. Many species excrete a sticky, sugary substance, called honeydew, on the leaves and stems on which they are feeding. Some species also produce white, waxy egg masses on stems and the undersides of leaves.

A wide range of ornamental plants, fruit trees and bushes grown out of doors can be attacked. Several species of scale insects are confined to houseplants or those growing in greenhouses or other sheltered places.

Symptoms

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
  • Heavy infestations may result in poor growth
  • Some species of scale insect excrete honeydew, which accumulates on the upper leaf surfaces. Under damp conditions 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

Control

Non-chemical control

Biological controls can be attempted during the summer in greenhouses with a parasitic wasps, Metaphycus helvolus, Encyrtus spp. and Encarsia citrina. These attack two species of scale insect, soft scale (Coccus hesperidum) and hemisperical scale (Saisettia coffeae).

The parasitic wasp is available from some mail order suppliers of biological controls.

Chemical control

The shell or scale protects the older insects from insecticides, so spraying is more effective against the newly hatched nymphs. With scales on outdoor plants there is usually one generation a year and in most species the eggs hatch in late June to July.

Scales in greenhouses or on houseplants breed throughout the year so all stages in the life cycle may be present at the same time. Scale insects can remain attached to the plant long after they are dead but new growth should be free of scales once they have been brought under control.

  • Deciduous fruit trees and roses can be treated with plant oil winter tree wash (e.g. Growing Success Winter Wash or Vitax Winter Tree Wash) on a mild dry day during December to control overwintering scale nymphs
  • Deltamethrin (e.g. Bayer Sprayday Greenfly Killer) and lambda-cyhalothrin (e.g. Westland Resolva Bug Killer) are contact sprays that can be used on ornamental plants and a wide range of edible plants listed on the product packaging
  • Ornamental plants in leaf can be sprayed with the systemic insecticides thiacloprid (e.g. Provado Ultimate Bug Killer), which is available as a spray concentrate and a ready to use spray or acetamiprid (e.g. Bug Clear Ultra). Some formulations of these sprays can be used on some fruits, including apple, plum, gooseberry, currants, raspberry and other cane fruits, check the manufacturer’s instructions
  • Sprays based on natural substances include fatty acids (e.g. Bayer Organic Pest Control or Doff Greenfly and Blackfly Killer ) or plant oils and extracts (e.g. Growing Success Fruit & Veg Bug Killer, Bug Clear for Fruit & Veg and Vitax Organic 2 in 1 Pest & Disease Control). These pesticides have very little persistence and so may need several applications during the scale's egg-hatching period, but they can be used on fruit trees and bushes

Downloads

Pesticides for gardeners (Adobe Acrobat pdf document outlining pesticides available to gardeners)

Biological control suppliers (Adobe Acrobat pdf document)

Biology

More than 25 different species of scale insects are pests in the UK and 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 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.

Advertise here

We love free entry to our local RHS garden

Lucy, mum, part-time lectureer & RHS member

Become a member

Discuss this

for the site or to share your experiences on this topic and seek advice from our community of gardeners.