Whiteflies

How to Identify and Get Rid of Whiteflies on Plants

Whiteflies
D. Kucharski, K. Kucharska/Shutterstock

Noticing tiny, white, fly-like insects on your plants? You may be dealing with a whitefly infestation. Here are tips on how to identify, control, and get rid of whiteflies!

What Are Whiteflies?

Whiteflies are soft-bodied, winged insects closely related to aphids and mealybugs. Despite their name, whiteflies are not a type of fly, though they do have wings and are capable of flying.

Whiteflies can be as small as 1/12 of an inch, are somewhat triangular in shape, and are often found in clusters on the undersides of leaves. They are active during the day and will scatter when disturbed, so they can be easier to spot than some nocturnal insect pests.

There are hundreds of species of whiteflies, but most affect only a small number of host plants. However, there are a few whitefly species that affect a wider range of plants, which make them the most problematic in horticulture. These whitefly species include the greenhouse whitefly, bandedwinged whitefly, giant whitefly, and silverleaf whitefly, among others. Silverleaf whiteflies, which are slightly smaller and more yellow than other whiteflies, are especially common in the southern United States. 

Where Are Whiteflies Found?

In USDA Zone 7 and colder, whiteflies are not able to survive winter outdoors, so their presence tends to be limited to indoor plants or greenhouse environments. However, if outdoors plants are bought from an infested greenhouse, whiteflies may become a seasonal outdoor garden pest. (Always inspect plants before bringing them home!) 

In warmer regions, whiteflies are capable of overwintering and reproducing outdoors throughout the year, so they can be a problem for both indoor and outdoor plants.

You’ll often start to see whiteflies in mid- to late-summer when it gets warm and humid.

Which Plants Are Susceptible to Whiteflies?

Whiteflies can be found on a wide variety of plants, from ornamental flowers to warm-weather vegetables, including tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and okra. Some species may attack sweet potatoes, plants from the cabbage family, and citrus trees. Indoors, they will feed on most common houseplants, especially those with soft, smooth leaves.

Identification

How to Identify Whiteflies

Like aphids, whiteflies use their piercing mouthparts to suck up plant juices and, in turn, produce a sticky substance known as honeydew. Honeydew left on its own can cause fungal diseases such as sooty mold to form on leaves.

With heavy whitefly feeding, plants will quickly become extremely weak and may be unable to carry out photosynthesis. Leaves will wilt, turn pale or yellow, growth will be stunted, and eventually leaves may shrivel and drop off the plant. 

Honeydew is a sign that the whiteflies have been feeding for several days. You might also see ants, which are attracted to the sweet honeydew. 

Where to Find Whiteflies on Plants

Whiteflies tend to prefer to feed on new growth, so check around any newly unfurled leaves first.

Check the undersides of leaves—especially around the veins—for white insects, even if they aren’t immediately visible, and feel leaf surfaces for sticky honeydew. If the whiteflies are feeding, they’ll suddenly all fly off the leaves in a swarm, so it’s very obvious.

You may also find eggs laid on the undersides of leaves. This is the beginning of a new generation! When the eggs hatch, the larvae will look like teeny white ovals without legs; they don’t move but they immediately start sucking the plant juice. This is why gardeners often miss whiteflies until it’s too late. Adult females can produce up to 400 eggs, which hatch in about one week to a month after laying. They are usually laid in a circular pattern. Eggs are pale yellow when newly laid and brown when about to hatch.

whiteflies-eggs-control-identify.jpg
Whiteflies congregate on the undersides of leaves and lay their tiny white eggs in this secure spot. Photo Credit: University of Florida.

Control and Prevention

How to Get Rid of Whiteflies

To control whiteflies, there are various solutions and traps that you can use. The biggest tip is: start early! In the mornings and evenings, as you wander the garden or tend to your houseplants, check the back of the leaves for eggs or notice when little bugs “fly away” as you approach your plants.

  • Always start with blasting whiteflies (as with aphids and many other insect pests) with your watering hose or a spray bottle. This will cause them to scatter and will dislodge nymphs and eggs to some extent.
  • Consider spraying your plants’ leaves with an insecticidal soap, following the directions on the packaging. Be sure to spray the undersides of leaves, too. Follow up 2 or 3 times, as necessary. 
    • Tip: Spray plants in the evening when temperatures are cooler, as mid-day heat may cause an adverse reaction in your plant. Plus, spraying in the evening allows you to avoid accidentally spraying any pollinators or beneficial insects.
  • According to the National Gardening Association, the following simple homemade mixture should be helpful to control and deter whiteflies: Use a mix of dish soap and water. A good squirt of soap to a gallon of water should work. As mentioned above, only spray in cooler temperatures; late in the day is best. The NGA mixture is a pretty benign combination, and whiteflies are nearly impossible to get rid of, so it’s best to try more preventative tactics first, as mentioned below.
  • If all else fails and your whitefly population is persistent, you can (carefully) use a handheld vacuum every few days to remove them from your plants. This gets rid of both nymphs and adults. Just be sure NOT to empty your vacuum into a trash can inside your home afterward!

How to Prevent Whiteflies

  • Your first line of defense should be inspecting all plants for pests before you bring them home, as well as keeping any new additions away from the rest of your plants for a period of time. This will allow you to identify and curtail any pest or disease issues that appear.
  • Keeping natural predators around will prevent whiteflies from ever exploding in population. For this reason, avoid using insecticides. Ladybugs, spiders, green lacewing larvae, and dragonflies are a few of many beneficial insects that can control a whitefly population. Hummingbirds are another natural predator. Try creating a habitat that will attract dragonflies and damselflies (which also helpfully eat mosquitoes) or beautiful hummingbirds.
  • When it comes to whiteflies, avoid chemical insecticides; they’re usually resistant and all you end up doing is killing the beneficial insects—their natural predators—and the insects that pollinate the garden for a better harvest!
  • Mulch early in the season with aluminum reflective mulch, especially around tomatoes and peppers. The reflective mulch makes it challenging for whiteflies to find their preferred host plants. 
  • Set out yellow index cards coated with petroleum jelly to monitor whiteflies, especially when it comes to tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, or cabbage crops. A half-and-half mixture of petroleum jelly and dish soap, spread over small boards painted bright yellow, is sticky enough to catch little whiteflies, too. To whiteflies, the color yellow looks like a mass of new foliage. The bugs are attracted to the cards, get stuck in the jelly, and die.

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Reader Comments

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White flies

I have white flies in my house.
What is the quickest way to get rid of them?Did help bad..

White fly homemade solution okay for lady bugs?

I have lots of lady bugs working hard to get rid of the white flies but I was wondering if the homemade spray that you are recommending is okay with lady bugs around.
Thanks

alcohol spray and lady bugs

The Editors's picture

I’m not sure. I’m finding that soap may be OK overall for the adult form but maybe not for the softer-bodied larvae. I can find nothing about the effect of the rubbing alcohol on lady bugs. (Also, as with any alcohol spray, test a little area first to check for plant sensitivity, and do not apply in direct sunlight.) It might be safest to just let the lady bugs continue their task, since you have a good collection of workers!

White fly on flower plants

I applied the alcohol, water and liquid soap mix which gave good result. No more white flies and I am applying spray periodically on the stems.

whitefly infestation on large gardenia bush

hi; I have a very large gardenia. Last year, I was advised to use a fungicide which I mixed with water and poured into the ground around the bush rather than attempting to spray the this very large shrub/bush. I am not able to find a similar product this year - all the products are for spraying. Any suggestions?

fly-away

The Editors's picture

Well, the first thought we have is to inquire of the source you had a year ago. The National Gardening Association has this advice: Whitefly is one of gardenings most difficult pests to control. The little fly-like insects with white wings hang out on the undersides of leaves where they multiply rapidly in warm weather. Whiteflies damage leaves and suck sap from the plant; if the infestation is severe, this can lead to death in young plants and decline in older ones. Persistence is the key to control. I have had good luck controlling these pests by spraying them with a mixture of dishwashing liquid, such as Palmolive with lemon, and water. A good squirt of soap to a gallon of water should do the trick. Place the mixture in spray bottle and spray leaves, both sides well, at least twice a week when the flies are active. You may need to continue this treatment for many weeks. Spray on an overcast day, in the very early morning or late afternoon to avoid damage from the sun. Also worth a try: Yellow sticky tape placed near plants – Yellow colored traps that attract insects with their color and snare them with a sticky substance. Release Encarsia Formosa, a tiny parasitic wasp which will eat them. Available from some nurseries and seed companies. Pyrethrin spray – an organic pesticide made from chrysanthemums. Encourage Hummingbirds. They love to dine on whiteflies. Hang feeders and keep them clean and full of simple syrup (a mixture made from 1 part sugar dissolved in 4 parts hot water). Plant flowers they adore, those with tubular flowers such as fuchsia, foxglove, salvias, bee balm. Good luck!

Whiteflies on Salvia

I planted a new salvia in a pot near my hummingbird feeder because I knew the birds liked Salvia-- but that's what got infested with whiteflies. The agastache right next to it seems to be unaffected. Unfortunately, the infestation of the salvia seems enough that the one or two birds I've got visiting the feeder may not be able to make a dent...

Whiteflies on Salvia - cont.

I'm also concerned that a soap treatment might adversely affect the hummingbirds. Someone suggested a sugar solution would cause the flies to stick to the plant-- and that wouldn't seem to be a problem for the hummingbirds-- a better option than soap? I've used Dr. Bronner's peppermint soap on my apricot tree for aphids in the past with some success, but hesitate to use it at this point since I do have a few hummingbirds at feeders in the area now...

Dr. Bronners

I use it also. If you spray in the evening, everything will be dry by morning and not hurt any beneficials or birds

soleirolia soleirolii whitefly attack

My soleirolia has hundreds of whitefly. I was wondering how to spray it,since there are so many leaves on it? Can I just shower it?

whitefly infestation

The Editors's picture

Angela, such a delicate plant … If there are many bugs as you suggest, there may be no saviing it. Showering it will probably not help. It’s a Mediterranean/rock garden plant outdoors, and an annual typically in cold winter areas. It may have become too wet.

Whitefly

How can I kill whitefly in the house, not in the garden. I have been found to have whitefly in my home. How do I kill them. I have a tropical fish tank in the house and some insecticides I cannot use because of this.

controlling whiteflies

The Editors's picture

You might try setting up yellow sticky traps (found in garden centers), away from children or pets. These are usually used more for monitoring than control, but in an indoor environment, including a greenhouse, it can be more effective to control the adults, which are attracted to the color and get stuck. Also, if you have any houseplants that are infested with whiteflies, be sure to check the leaves regularly, and remove any older leaves that are severely infested with the larvae and pupae. Look for tiny oval eggs on leaf undersides. Wingless nymphs look sort of like pale scale insects, flattened and oval, and do not move after the first instar. Keep handpicking and controlling with the traps, and you might be able to overcome a mild infestation. Make sure that the insects are not easily coming in from the outside, or coming in on infected plants taken in from outdoors.

White Flies in the Entire Yard

I see all the comments regarding the helpful hints of getting rid of white flies on plants. How can I get completely get rid of what seems like thousands, around my entire 1/4 acre yard? Thanks for any assistance.

I sprayed my plants with a

I sprayed my plants with a soap solution (Late in the Evening); however, the plants were stressed after the spray. They eventually die. I've experimented with neem Oil and soap solution, and the side affect are always detrimental in my case.

I have them all over my

I have them all over my persimmon tree. what can I use to get rid of them? Something safe to use and of course homemade remedy. How much and how often to take care of the problem?Someone told me to whitewash (limewash) with a mixture of lime and water but I'm a little scared to try this.

Hi, Tracy: You can find all

The Editors's picture

Hi, Tracy: You can find all kinds of recipes for homemade whitefly sprays (see below, for example), but all involve some sort of soap to basically dry out the flies. Try slowly stirring together a mixture of 3 quarts water, 1 tablespoon dishwashing soap (not detergent, not antibacterial), and 1 teaspoon white distilled vinegar, and spraying. If this doesn't seem to have had any effect after 3 days, repeat, but with 2 quarts of water, not 3. Good luck!

I sprayed once for whitefly

I sprayed once for whitefly on my small palm, and I wanted to replace some small plants near it. Would it be okay to spray the palm with insecticide with new plants under it?

Instead of using an

The Editors's picture

Instead of using an insecticide try a homemade soap spray.
In a 32-ounce spray bottle mix 2 parts rubbing alcohol, 5 parts water, and 1 tablespoon liquid soap. Spray the mixture on the foliage of the plant.

How often can you spray the

How often can you spray the homemade remedy? Is there an amount that is too much? The have really infested one hanging plant out front. I doused it with water spray then did the home remedy after. How often should I spray it?

Try spraying the solution

The Editors's picture

Try spraying the solution three days in a row. Check to see if the infestation has cleared up. If not, spray again. Make sure you coat as much of the plant as possible with the solution including underneath the leaves.

2 parts rubbing alcohol, 5

2 parts rubbing alcohol, 5 parts water and 2 tablespoons of liquid detergent.
My question is what size are the "parts"referring to?

"Part" can be any

The Editors's picture

"Part" can be any measurement. So it will depend on how much solution you want to make. For example, you could mix 2 cups alcohol with 5 cups water, then add 2 tablespoons detergent.

A "part" refers to 4 ounces

A "part" refers to 4 ounces

I'm just noticing whiteflies

I'm just noticing whiteflies on some of my indoor plants. They are food plants, however, and I do not want to use poisons on them! 2 of the plants are cat nip and cat grass (also green onions, parsley and oregano are near by)... it is still too cold in NJ to plant these outside and the nip and grass stay inside year round for my cat. How can I eliminate the flies and yet have the plants remain safe for people and my cat to consume?! If the sticky traps only get the adults, won't I be stuck in an endless cycle?

Whiteflies love warm weather

The Editors's picture

Whiteflies love warm weather so putting the plants outside will not get rid of them. If you don't want to use sprays on your plants, some people recommend vaccuuming off whiteflies. (Put the bag in the freezer to kill them!)

Hi I have lots of white fly

Hi
I have lots of white fly on a ficus plant on my balcony. We live in the UAE and insecticide is not available.
There's a web like film around new shoots and what looks like a wood louse ( is this a nest of some sort?)
Another plant which I had (gardenia) had spider mites and I had to sadly throw it away as my treatment of soapy dishwater in a spray bottle didn't work!
Please help
Thanks
Cath

I believe you have what is

I believe you have what is called "wooly aphids". Apparently they secrete the webby stuff... I have it bad on my rose bush, which sadly seems unsavable, and a little on my strawberries. I went out with a flashlight and smushed them all then spayed with the soap solution. My fingers are crossed.

i had some kind of bug(s)

i had some kind of bug(s) creating a web like mass all over my potted impatience plant on the porch, I placed it under a tree in front of the porch, let the rain wash it off, that plant has sprung back to its old self and looks great. It is full of blooms, so I left it there. Living in Central FL does pose it's problems with pests.

White fly problem

White fly problem

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