Description of whiteflies

One of the easiest houseplant insect pests to recognize is the whitefly.  These sap feeders are not really flies – they just look like it.  Actually I think they look more like tiny white moths, but they are the size of gnats, about 1/16 inch long.  You might notice them sitting on the underside of an infested leaf, usually the youngest leaves.  More likely you will notice the tiny adults when they flutter off the leaf as you water or handle the plant.  They are easily disturbed but fly only a short distance before they quickly return to the leaf.

Life cycle of whiteflies

Whitefly adults are multi-taskers: the females eat and lay eggs at the same time.  They feed by inserting their short, needlelike beak into the foliage and sucking out the plant juices.  They can’t bother to stop eating to lay eggs so they turn on their beak as they feed and consequently end up laying eggs in a semicircle around the feeding site.  After 5 to 7 days the eggs hatch into tiny pale green immatures called nymphs.  These crawl a short distance before settling down to feed in one place for the rest of their life.  Nymphs suck out large quantities of plant sap for 2 to 3 weeks and then go into a non-feeding resting stage while they transform to adults.  In 4 to 6 weeks the entire process from egg to adult is completed and ready to start again.

Damage of whiteflies

The immobile immature stages are small, flat, nearly-translucent, and easy to overlook.  Consequently large populations can develop before you notice anything is wrong.  Sap feeding by nymphs and adults can stress the plants and cause decline of plant vigor. Infested leaves may be stunted or yellow and may drop prematurely.   Typical of most sap feeders, whiteflies must eat large quantities of dilute sap in order to obtain the necessary nutrients.  All that liquid and excess sugar ends up being excreted as shiny, sticky honeydew that may detract from the plant’s appearance or lead to black sooty mold that grows on the foliage.

Management of whiteflies

It is very hard to get rid of whiteflies, so the first step is to do all you can to prevent infestations.  Carefully check all new plants you purchase and the plants you bring indoors from the garden or patio in the fall.  Keep a watchful eye on these plants.  Check regularly and frequently for several weeks and be ready to launch the control assault at the first signs of infestation.  One option for heavily infested or badly damaged plants is to give up and throw the plant away to minimize your losses and avoid spreading the problem to other plants.

Whiteflies are highly attracted to yellow objects, a behavior that is exploited in gardens and greenhouses by the use of yellow sticky traps.  These sticky cards, stakes or tapes catch only the flying adults and are more appropriately used as a monitoring device.  I wouldn’t expect sticky traps to eliminate a houseplant whitefly problem, and wouldn’t rate this as very useful in the house.

Washing infested leaves (especially the undersides) with a moist cloth or sponge is one way to reduce whiteflies, but is labor intensive and inefficient for large plants.

Finally, insecticides are available but control is usually marginal at best.  Thorough application to infested leaf undersides is difficult to do and the eggs and nonfeeding resting stages are immune. Nymphs and adults can be sprayed to death, but repeat applications at weekly intervals are usually required.   Systemic insecticides that are applied to the soil and taken into the plant via the roots may be available for foliage plants.  Apply only ready-to-use insecticides specifically made for houseplants according to label directions.

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.  

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.