Harmful insects

Mealybugs on Bananas

There’s been a lot of commotion lately… I’d even say, total panic! People are finding mealybugs on their bananas!!!

How? Why? And Above All, Is It Dangerous?

First of all, you should know that there are nearly 10,000 species of mealybugs. Yeah, I know…

Secondly, they live in all kinds of habitats: from the tundra to the equator. Needless to say, your home will not be too hostile to them, no matter the temperature or the humidity of the soil of your delicious plants. On top of that, they’re not hard to please; they have somewhat of a generalist diet. That pretty much means if it’s green, it’s edible…

Fortunately, this insect is not dangerous for you. For your plants, however, that’s another story…!

Female Ferrisia virgata, one of many species! Photo: Chamaiporn Buamas.

The Ups and Downs of Mr. Hodgson

Seeing the panic messages on Facebook, followed by endless lists of comments advising x, y and z solution, I went to have a look in the old articles of our Laidback Gardener to find out what to do. I invite you to have a look too! It’s as hilarious as it is discouraging!

You see, Larry loathed mealy bugs and, in spite of all his knowledge on the subject, he was also a victim of these critters… without ever really managing to get rid of them. I won’t repeat all his arguments here (I’ll leave you the pleasure of discovering them in his past publications!), but in short, if you find mealy bugs, you’re done for. Throw everything away and start from scratch!

But… Does That Mean We Should Ban Bananas?

I know you probably love your plant collection very much, but don’t fall into a dietary deficiency either! Many other fruits and vegetables could arrive at your home with a powdery-looking pest (mealybugs are generalists…) so it’s best to be aware of the problem, understand it, and prevent it.

To begin with, you should know that while the male flies, the female has no wings. So how does she contaminate all your plants? Because of you!

Have you washed your pruners? Your gardening gloves? The tip of your watering can? Yeah, me neither… And yet, it’s on these things that the mealybugs cling and pass from one plant to another. So be warned: if you have a plant in quarantine, plan for a real quarantine. (Since 2020, we’re good at this!)

Trowel, watering can and pruning shears
Keep your tools clean! Photo:  Kate Cox.

The best way to avoid a full-blown invasion of your plants by bananas is to prevent it. Personally, I don’t have any plants in my kitchen. I guess it helps that I haven’t yet had a spontaneous outbreak. (As I write this sentence, I’m knocking on wood so hard that I might get a splinter… )

Examine bananas when buying them, store them away from plants in your home, wash your hands often (yes, not just to prevent viruses), don’t leave banana peels lying around once you’ve eaten your banana, have a compost bin with a lid… These are all good ways to prevent the dispersion mealy bugs in your home.

Why Are There Suddenly So Many?

In biologist’s talk, we summarize it like this: loss of biodiversity. This means that some species have fewer and fewer individuals, or simply disappear, creating a disruption of the natural balance.

Aerial view of a suburb
Predators often need a larger territory than their prey, which explains why they are the first to be affected by the disappearance of natural environments. Photo: Deane Bayas.

Among these affected species, several predators of mealybugs have lost their place of residence, particularly because of rapid urban sprawl. Ladybugs, fly and butterfly larvae, and small wasps are among them. Mealybugs, which are much less affected by predators, are therefore free to proliferate. They invade banana trees and end up in grocery stores a few thousand kilometers from their country of origin. For them, no problem, because remember, they adapt well to many climates.

Moreover, their “shell” and the wax it produces represents an additional protection that is resistant to water and many pesticides. In other words, without a predator, it is practically impossible to save yourself from these mealybugs!

The good news is that mealybugs are used to make red dye. Look at the ingredients in your yogurt or drinks at home. How is this positive? It’s a 100% natural dye, which exists in large quantities (haha!), and is not harmful to the environment!

Cochineal is mealybug… Bon appétit! Photo: change.org.

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

3 comments on “Mealybugs on Bananas

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  3. Jt Michaels

    Fun article, Audrey! So please forgive me for being a little controversial or offensive, but I’m going to ask everyone who reads this comment to consider NOT EATING BANANAS (except for special occasions) unless they grow in your bioregion. Do you understand the repercussions of bunker fuel?

    As a lifelong food and nutrition geek, I know the nutrients in bananas are available in food which are not damaging the environment and destroying local cultures. Although when I was still publishing and broadcasting, I wrote about the reasons often, I won’t nag here. I ask only that, if you consider yourself an environmentalist, to please do a look-see and reconsider your bananas (and quinoa plus other imported foods) in your regular diet (unless doctor’s orders).

    Again, forgive me if I’ve offended anyone and thank you if you’ve bothered to consider my proposal.

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