Ants Are Harmless Right? Not Really…

This year has been bad for my succulents in terms of bugs. I had gone bug-free for years and this year is not that year. I noticed ants attacking one plant and since I have my plants close to one another, it wasn’t long before there were ants in more than one of my pots. Whenever you see an army of ants in your succulents, it’s bad news. One or two here and there is not a problem, but if you see a trail of ants busily working their way to your plant, and when you look closely and see hundreds of them in your plant, it is time to take action. You see, when there are ants, it’s usually a sign of pest infestations. Often times, it’s a sign that there is an infestation of mealybugs or aphids that are drawing the ants there. Sometimes, ants bring these pests with them and transfer them from plant to plant. These bugs or pests secrete a sweet substance or honeydew that the ants love and use for food. What the ants do is they protect these pests from other predators. In return, they get honeydew from them.

What are Aphids and Mealybugs?

Aphids and mealybugs are common pests affecting succulents. They suck the sap of the plant, weakening the plant and making it more susceptible to diseases. Small infestations are usually treatable and the plants can bounce back. But a large infestation is very hard to get rid of as these pests lay eggs and reproduce very fast. They also hide on the undersides of the plant, making them hard to spot and treat. They can also become resistant to insecticides. If left untreated, the plant can die.

Bugs on my Aeoniums

The ants seem to have settled in the two aeoniums I had. I heard that vulnerable plants are attacked by pests so I wonder if these two aeoniums were a specific target for some reason. I suspect they were sitting in the wrong soil medium. I always pot my succulents in a cactus mix and perlite from one brand. I remember getting this huge bag of organic cactus mix that was on sale from Home Depot last year and I think it was a bad batch. I ended up throwing half the bag away after finding mold in it but the other half had already been used. I suspect the soil ended up in these two pots of aeoniums that I repotted. Anyway, lesson learned for me. Next time I will avoid these bargain bags of potting soil because they truly are not worth the few couple of bucks I thought I was saving for the trouble my plants are in now.

Aeonium ‘Blushing Beauty’

Aeonium Arboreum ‘Zwartkop’ (Black Rose)

If you don’t look closely, you can easily miss these tiny bugs

From the outside, the plants look really good and healthy. In fact, if you don’t look closely they seem to be thriving. They have lots of new growth and pups shooting out. These plants are hardy and can take a lot. However, I am not taking any chances with them. The ants were relentless and difficult to get rid of. I alternated between soapy water and rubbing alcohol diluted with water and sprayed the plants thoroughly about once a week. The ants would seem to be gone for a few days then eventually come back. Out of desperation, I also tried an insecticidal soap that I purchased. The plants seem to be fine and not bothered by the soap, rubbing alcohol, or insecticidal spray. Some parts of the leaves got a little sunburned but all in all the plants were fine. It took a few sprays over the course of a few weeks to finally get rid of the ants. Once I had gotten rid of the ants I thought the plants were finally clean and free of bugs. But I was wrong. Here’s what I found hiding under the leaves a few weeks after the ants were gone. Aphids and mealybugs all in one plant, and a lot of them! Nasty!

Get rid of the ants first before anything else

What I found out is that after the ants are gone, this is actually the time when you can treat the pest infestation in your plant. As long as the ants are there, they will protect the mealybugs or aphids like precious cattle. It is good to know that if you want to introduce predatory insects to your plants to help get rid of the infestation, you need to get rid of the ants first or else the ants will kill the predatory insects. Another way to get rid of the ants is to draw them out of the plant by placing ant baits next to the plant or in close proximity to the plant. Natural predatory insects are ladybugs, hoverfly larvae, parasytic wasps, lacewing larvae, and entopmopathogenic fungi.

The Aeonium ‘Blushing Beauty’ I truly am considering getting rid of altogether instead of dealing with the trouble of getting rid of the infestation. I have several of these growing in different pots and have had great success growing these from stem cuttings. In fact, this pot right here is grown from stem cuttings. It might be easier to just restart from clean stem cuttings rather than dealing with an infested plant. For now I have it isolated from my other plants.

Beheading the infected plant

However, the Aeonium Arboreum ‘Zwartkop’ (Black Rose) I cannot bring myself  to part with just yet so I am focusing most of my energy on treating this plant. My husband suggested to get rid of the whole plant but I am not ready to give up on it just yet. I mean, look at it. I just don’t have the heart to do it. One option you can do if you have a bad infestation is to uproot the whole plant and clean from the roots. You can do this by removing all the soil and washing the entire plant with soapy water. You want to make sure you have cleaned the entire plant completely so that you are not left with any eggs that can hatch and reproduce. After washing thoroughly, allow the plant to dry out for a couple of days before repotting in a fresh potting mix. Use a well draining potting mix. If you’re planning to use the same pot as before, make sure to disinfect the pot as well.

Instead of washing the roots, what I decided to do was ‘behead’ the plants and start them over as stem cuttings since I do not want to deal with the trouble of cleaning out the whole plant entirely. I have grown aeoniums from stem cuttings and have had great success with them so I feel confident about going this route. In fact, most of the plants in this pot were started from stem cuttings.

Spray with rubbing alcohol

Before beheading, I sprayed the plant with rubbing alcohol diluted with water (1:1 solution). Some people do not bother diluting with water and use it full strength. I filled my water bottle and sprayed every nook and cranny of this plant, and some more. You can also use soapy water and spray the plant with it. I waited a few days and kept the plant away from direct sunlight. Then I sprayed the plant again with the same solution. You may have to do this a few times to make sure you get rid of the infestation entirely.

I then cut the stems off using a sharp pruning shears. After cutting the stems I had a better view of what was going on underneath the plant. The infestation seemed worse than what I initially thought. The plant’s leaves are covered almost entirely by hundreds of tiny little aphids. I tried to spray them off and wash them off but they were stuck on the leaves. Aphids and mealybugs secrete a honeydew substance that is sticky. This makes it difficult to wash the dead bugs off. I almost wanted to give up at this point but since I have come this far I just kept going.

Dead aphids stuck on the leaves

Dunking in soapy water

What I eventually did was to dunk the stem cuttings in soapy water and with gloves on I had to physically wipe the bugs off each leaf. Gross, I know! But this is a labor of love. I made sure nothing was left behind. You don’t want to take any chances with unhatched eggs somehow remaining on the leaves and hatching later. Some parts of the plant I had to blast with water to get rid of the gunk on them. 

Here’s how they look after washing with soapy water and literally cleaning every single leaf. I then kept the stems away from direct sunlight and let them dry for a couple of days. 

Drying and Replanting

When they were dry I stuck the stem cuttings in fresh potting mix. I like to use a combination of cactus potting mix and perlite. I decided to use a smaller, shallower pot to repot these stem cuttings. Aeoniums naturally shed their lower leaves and a lot of the leaves end up in the pot. If you don’t get rid of the dead leaves in the pot, they can be a breeding ground for insects and pests. I didn’t want to take any chances with this one and I figure a smaller, shallower pot will be easier to clean and maintain.

After a few days, these stem cuttings are dry and ready to be potted. I used a combination of cactus mix and perlite.

Keep Away from Direct Sunlight

These stem cuttings need to be away from direct sunlight to avoid burning until fully rooted. It will take a few weeks for roots to form. You can check for roots by pulling the plant lightly from the soil. If they come out easily, they haven’t rooted. If you feel some resistance when you tug lightly, then roots have developed. I water lightly every few days of when the soil feels dry until the stems develop roots. Once rooted, I decrease watering and water as I normally would my other succulent plants. You can also slowly increase the amount and intensity of sunlight the plant receives once rooted.

I will be keeping a very close eye on these two to see how they progress. These are amazing plants and from my experience, bounce right back when given a chance from whatever it is that was ailing them.

What I Learned from this Experience

Next time I encounter another pest infestation, first thing I will do is isolate the plant right away. If it’s a particularly bad infestation, I don’t think I’ll go through the trouble of getting rid of the pests. Most likely I will just chuck the plant out and maybe save a stem cutting or two to propagate. Luckily, these plants are easy to propagate and even if you decide to throw the whole plant out, succulents are fairly affordable and highly accessible these days.

Update

Five months later and the plants are doing great! They are thriving and showing lots of new growth. And most importantly, they have remain bug-free!

(The white powder on the leaves are sand from my daughter’s sandbox).

Please click on my resource page to find out where to purchase natural pest treatments online.