You pluck an orange from a tree and a tiny white insect flies out from under a leaf. On the underside of that leaf is a strange white spiral. You have discovered whiteflies.
Whiteflies are not related to flies at all. Instead, they are close cousins to aphids, mealybugs, soft scale and armored scale. These pests cause billions of dollars in plant damage each year, sucking the sap from 500 different plant species, including your cabbage, cucumbers, eggplant, melon, squash, and tomatoes.
Whiteflies got their name because most of them look like tiny white flies. Adult bodies are actually yellow or black, but they are hard to see. Whiteflies have 4 white wings and are often no bigger than 1 mm, which means you could stand 14 of them, end to end, across an American dime.
There are more than 1500 whitefly species, worldwide. In California, we have 10 whitefly species that cause problems in the garden:
Whiteflies are quick and difficult to see. It is easier to tell if a garden is infested with whiteflies if you see white spirals on the underside of leaves. These spirals are whitefly eggs.
Adult females walk a spiral path, laying eggs in a waxy trail that holds the eggs to the leaf. In warmer parts of California, whiteflies can breed year-round. Whiteflies can reproduce at mind-boggling rates. They go through four developmental stages, or instars. Eggs hatch out as nymphs, called crawlers. The next three stages are nearly immobile, much like scale insects. The final instar is a pupal stage.
At each stage, these pests use piercing mouthparts to suck sap from the phloem of a wide variety of garden edibles and ornamentals, causing leaf drop and a general failure to thrive. The honeydew (sugary poop) left behind is host to sooty mold. Honeydew also attracts ants, which then protect whiteflies from their natural enemies. Some whitefly larva may transmit viral diseases, such as cucurbit yellow stunting disorder and tomato yellow leaf curl. Also, adults can carry other pathogens. Low whitefly populations are not a significant problem, but they can make trees look shabby.
Heavy whitefly populations are very difficult to control. Any leaves with whitefly eggs should be removed and discarded. If the leaf looks particularly healthy, you can simply rub your thumb over the eggs to destroy them. Reflective mulches repel adult whiteflies, aphids, and leafhoppers. Also, yellow sticky traps can be used to trap and monitor whitefly populations.
Natural predators, such as minute pirate bugs, green lacewings, big-eyed bugs, and hummingbirds are the best defense against whitefly infestations. You can attract these garden helpers by planting zinnias, bee balm, hummingbird bush and pineapple sage.
Whitefly population explosions are often created when gardeners apply broad-spectrum pesticides that kill off beneficial predators, or when ants are allowed free access to host trees. Ants can be prevented from protecting whiteflies by applying a sticky barrier around the trunk. Dusty conditions can also put the odds in favor of whiteflies. Washing off dusty plants with a garden hose can help reduce whitefly populations.
According to companion planting lore, whiteflies can be discouraged from an area by planting basil, mint, thyme, and nasturtium. I don’t know if that works, but those plants are nice to have, in any case.
You may be surprised to learn, as I was, that plants release chemical compounds when bitten by insects or herbivores. These chemicals communicate with nearby plants, telling them to start protecting themselves against specific threats. These chemical messages also alert parasitic wasps and other beneficial insects, calling in the troops to protect the plant.
Researchers have recently learned that silverleaf whiteflies have developed the ability to flip this self-defense mechanism to their advantage. It works like this. Whiteflies are known to carry viruses. When a whitefly bites a plant, the plants used to defend themselves against the whiteflies. Now, they work harder to defend themselves against potential viral infection and create a more suitable whitefly habitat. This misinformation spreads to nearby plants, creating a cascade effect that can be very difficult to manage.
It’s a war zone out there!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!