Oystershell scale

Description of oystershell scale

Oystershell scale are a type of armored scale. Armored scales are enclosed in a hard cover that is constructed of wax, shed skins and other substances. These tiny insects (less than 1/8 inch long) live under this protective cover on the leaves or bark of their host plant.

Underneath the camouflaged cover, you can find an animal not resembling any insect you have seen: no eyes, legs or visible antennae, and its body appears to be somewhat flattened and sac-like. 

These tiny insects get their nourishment from the host plant. Specifically, armored scale insects feed on individual plant cell contents. In contrast, aphids (a scale relative) feed on plant ‘sap’ (phloem tissue). Because of this difference in feeding sites, armored scale mouthparts are several times longer than their body, which

Oystershell scale
Oystershell scale on a maple. Photo by Jeff Iles.

enables them to feed on a large area of plant tissue to meet their nutritional requirements.

Life cycle of oystershell scale

Oystershell scales overwinter as white eggs beneath the female cover. Late May or early June, the eggs hatch and tiny white "crawlers" find new feeding sites on the host plant. Newly settled scales begin producing a waxy cover almost immediately. These insects feed at this site until development is complete.

Oystershell scale
Oystershell scales.  Photo by Laura Iles.

There is either one or two generations per year of oystershell scale in Iowa. If the scale cover is gray or banded, the scale has one generation. If the cover is brown, there are two generations each season, the second beginning in late July or August.

Damage caused by oystershell scale

Oystershell scales can overwhelm a host. As populations increase in number, entire branches may be encrusted with scales. If this pest is not controlled early, leaves on affected twigs or branches drop and dieback occurs, both of leaves and twigs/branches.

Management of oystershell scale

1. Pruning: If the infestation is limited on a host plant, pruning off the infested branches is a good place to start. You will want to observe this plant during the summer in case you missed some scales. 

2. Scrubbing: Gently scrub off scale covers of overwintering scales with a plastic dish pad. This should be done before eggs hatch in the spring. 

3. Oils: Apply horticultural oil to the host plant before bud break in spring. Oils suffocate the eggs, preventing them from hatching. 

4. Contact insecticides: Apply an insecticide spray as the crawlers are active. Crawler activity can be monitored by examining infested plants prior to expected emergence. Portions of the host plant can be shaken over a sheet of colored paper and the white crawlers can be seen moving about if you use a hand lens or magnifying glass. 

5. Systemic insecticides: Dinotefuron is effective at managing oystershell scales, but imidacloprid will not.

Protecting Natural Enemies: There are natural enemies that feed on armored scales, such as lady beetles, predatory mites and small parasitic wasps.  If targeting the crawler stage in your management plan, the use of horticultural oils or insecticidal soaps will soften the impact on the natural enemies compared to other spray materials.

Do you live in Iowa and have an insect you would like identified?

The Iowa State University Plant & Insect Diagnostic Clinic will identify your insect, provide information on what it eats, life cycle, and if it is a pest the best ways to manage them.  Please see our website for current forms, fees, and instructions on preserving and mailing insects.   

Contact information for each states diagnostic laboratory for U.S. residents.  If you live outside of Iowa please do not submit a sample without contacting the Plant & Insect Diagnostic Clinic.  

Last reviewed:
September 2023

Links to this article are strongly encouraged, and this article may be republished without further permission if published as written and if credit is given to the author, Yard and Garden, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. If this article is to be used in any other manner, permission from the author is required. This article was originally published on September 13, 2016. The information contained within may not be the most current and accurate depending on when it is accessed.