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Bug-off party for pests

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If insecticides don’t work, there’s no harm turning to the booze to kill off unwanted bugs on your plants.

If you’ve found some unwelcome guests in your garden, usually hanging out on the undersides of leaves, your first thought is probably not to give them a bath and throw them a party. But it’s actually not such a bad idea.

Here in Cambodia, there lives about every kind of pest that can eat or grow on a plant; consider it part of the trade-off for living in a tropical paradise. Different bugs are partial to different plants, so if one plant is being besieged by one kind of bug, your other plants may be waiting for another kind of bug to take a fancy to them.

Mealybugs are very common in the tropics and can feed on everything from frangipanis to coconut trees. They don’t move about, so it may seem like you have a fungus or mold growing on your plant in small white clumps. Ther colony may be anywhere in size from around 3 millimetres up.

Mealybugs feed on plant sap and like to position themselves either on the stalks of the plant or on the veins on the underside of the leaves. Once in place, they will excrete a wax that covers and protects them from predators. This is the white fuzz that you see. Unfortunately the wax coating also makes them difficult for us humans to get rid of.

Mixing two teaspoons of liquid soap to a gallon of warm water, you need to gently wash off the mealybugs from all of the leaves and the stalk. Use a soft sponge. If there are some pesky ones in crooks or crevices you can get them using an old toothbrush.

Check the plant after a week to see if any eggs hatched to re-infest it; if so, simply repeat the procedure. Use a mild soap such as a castile soap without the added bleach, fragrance and antibacterial agents that aren’t so good for your plants.

As a side note, plants that are kept out of the rain thrive on regular rinsing of their leaves either by a light sponge bath or by being sprayed down, because Cambodian air is full of silty dust, which clogs up the pores of the leaf. A regular rinsing will also help to prevent bugs from making a home there.

Another insidious plant bug isn’t a bug at all but an arachnid, Tetranychus urticae, the spider mite. These critters are very small and will appear as little dots peppering the underside of the leaf. They also feed on the sap of the plant but are prone to cause the leaves to turn brown, as they feed indiscriminately upon the entire leaf surface.

Another way of identifying spider mites is by the webs they leave behind. Left unchecked, they can make your plants look like a movie prop from Great Expectations, completely encased in spider webs. You’ll want to remove the webs before getting to the mites.

Because they’re spiders, insecticides aren’t effective on them, but a stiff drink is. Mix four shots of cheap rum or vodka and one teaspoon of liquid soap with two litres of water in a sprayer. You can find nice pump sprayers at the little garden centres around town for 10,000 riels (US$2.40); they are much sturdier than the squeeze-style sprayers and have a capacity that’s ideal for gardens.

Spray the underside of all of the leaves on the affected plant and repeat every three to four days. The mites can’t hold their liquor and will die out after a week or two, but be careful not to use too much alcohol. In excess, it acts as an herbicide – a plant killer.

Aphids can be controlled the same way although they are big enough to be picked off and mashed between your fingers, too. If the infestation isn’t too bad, they can also be dabbed with a cotton bud dipped in rum or vodka. This will kill them rather quickly, making it quite the farewell party. Salud and sayonara.

If you have any questions about keeping your house in order or repairing the damage of daily life, email Jet at diy@phnompenhpost.com

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