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Tiny White Bugs in Soil: Friends or Foes of Your Plants?

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You wake up one morning and perform a routine check-up on your wonderfully lush plant army – be it houseplants, garden flowers, or vegetables. Everything seems all right, but with your sleepy eyes, you notice the soil particles moving around a bit. Are you still dreaming?

You rub your eyelids, squint, and realize the soil is not moving. Instead, there are dozens of tiny white bugs crawling on its surface. Yikes!

What now? What should you do about the small white bugs in the soil – if they’re bugs at all?

Well, let’s get down to the facts and figure out what those tiny white bugs are doing in your plant’s soil. I’ll teach you all about the different types of insects you might find in your soil and let you know whether they’re dangerous to your plants or not. Then, we’ll explore effective, organic, and safe ways to control your colony of tiny white bugs.

What Are the Little White Dots In My Plant Soil?

The “pest” culture, as I call it, has conditioned us to believe that as soon as something crawls around our plants, it’s likely trying to kill them.

However, in many cases, this is far from the truth.

You may be relieved to know that many tiny white bugs in the soil are harmless. In fact, some can even be beneficial!

However, while many don’t cause issues, some soil-based white bugs act as pests, requiring your attention and intervention.

First of all, you have to be sure if the white dots you are seeing are moving or not. Or, more precisely, whether they are living or not.

“Is It Even Alive?” – The Soil Additives

tiny white perlite specks in soil
Perlite is a porous white rock that helps your soil breathe. Your soil is probably very healthy if your white dots look like this!

If the white dots are immobile, scattered around, vary in size (even if slightly), and have a sort of irregular shape, don’t automatically think these are eggs of some nasty pest or anything similar. In fact, these little white dots probably aren’t living creatures.

Many soil mixes contain perlite or agro perlite, a highly beneficial soil additive that’s a glistening white volcanic rock. Perlite makes the soil more porous and allows it to “breathe,” lessening the chance of waterlogging.

Perlite is snow-white, so it may confuse you into thinking there are bugs in the soil. However, if you find these white chunks of light rock in your soil, there is nothing to worry about.

On the other hand, if the white dots are immobile, but even in size, all have a uniform shape and seem dull or translucent, you may have yourself some insect eggs.

Invertebrate Eggs

tiny white snail and slug eggs in a clutch
These are snail eggs, and it’s common to find them around the bases of vegetable plants and edible herbs.

It’s not all about the crawling things in the soil – sometimes, insects and other invertebrates leave behind a small, immobile “gift package” in the soil.

Most arthropod, snail, and slug eggs are rounded or oval and usually semi-translucent. Still, even if they happen to be white, they never glisten as hard as perlite.

Several invertebrates commonly pick the top 1 to 3 inches of soil as their nurseries. Here is a short list:

  • Snails and slugs. Eggs look like semi-translucent pearls 2-3 millimeters in diameter and are usually laid in small indentations in the soil.
  • Ants. Eggs and pupae are tiny and oval, although the size depends on the ant species. They are rarely outside the ant nest and unattended by worker ants (or are carried by them), but you may happen to uncover them and scatter them around accidentally while digging.
  • Chafers/June bugs. Chafers lay eggs in the soil so their fatty larvae can feed on grass and other plant roots – that’s why gardeners dislike them (especially the lawn-lovers). The eggs are round, translucent, and look like snail eggs, only smaller!

Soil Mites

Oribatid moss mites (Oribatida) are small arachnids living in the soil or mulch
Oribatid moss mites (Oribatida) are small arachnids living in the soil or mulch

Soil mites or Orbatid mites are one of the most common tiny white bugs in the soil; luckily, they are harmless for your plants.

Mites get a bad rap because of their plant-hungry cousins – the two-spotted spider mites. However, actual soil mites are not pests. In fact, they are probably the most numerous arthropods in natural forest soil, eating decaying organic matter and fungi.

That’s also why we’ll often find soil mites in compost piles (among other things). It’s a superb environment for soil mites.

Because soil mites prefer to eat decaying plant matter (the “detritus”) and soil fungi, they won’t touch living plants. Even if you find them in the soil around the plants, they are actually attracted to leaves, mold, and moss.

If you’ve been wondering how to get rid of soil mites and what kills mites in soil, let me guarantee you that there is no need to bother yourself or the poor mite-y mates. Soil mites are not pests, and there is no need to control the soil mite population.

On the other hand, they can indicate too much decaying organic matter or undesirable mold in the soil (see, they were even trying to help). If you want them gone, try to remove the leaves, wood chips, or other decomposing goods from your soil.

And if you are worried about accidentally mixing up spider mites with soil mites and think you should act just in case: Let me tell you that the chance of a mix-up is slim because their life cycles are so different.

Interestingly, most soil mites are not white but may seem pale and whitish against dark soil. Also, many have a hard, shiny chitinous shell, and the shine may make them look “white.”

Root Aphids

tiny white root aphids in the soil
Here, some root aphids and ants are hard at work harvesting carrots!

Some tiny white bugs in the soil do spell trouble.

Although they’re not as well known as their plant leaf-feeding cousins, root aphids can cause severe damage to plants. Their bodies are usually yellowish, greenish, or brown but with a waxy-white sheen. Like the “common” aphids, root aphids have a winged and wingless life stage.

To make things worse, they operate in stealth mode underground. Root aphid infestation is hard to notice because the aphids rarely venture above ground and stick to their nutritional resource – the plant’s root ball.

While plants can sustain a certain amount of root aphids with almost no consequences, large infestations make an impact. The symptoms of a root aphid infestation include:

  • Stunted growth.
  • Wilting.
  • Ill-colored foliage followed by leaf drop.

Since drying out can cause similar symptoms, check the roots if you believe that you have adequately watered your plants and are still experiencing the symptoms described above.

Often, the only sign of root aphid presence (besides the plant’s decline) will be the waxy white secretions built up on the roots. Also, ants usually take notice and hang around to suck on the sweet aphid secretions.

They will also protect the root aphid eggs during the winter and sometimes even carry them between the host plants. Some root aphid species even completely depend on the ants to care for them!

However, there’s some good news (for a change): most root aphid species feed on grasses and weeds and are not particularly interested in garden plants. Some notable garden visitors include the Carrot root aphid, Bean root aphid, and Cabbage root aphid.

Rose root aphids are especially interesting because their ant take-carers construct earthy tunnels on the lower portions of rose stems to allow them above ground. Although they have fancy infrastructure, these (brownish) aphids are not considered much of a threat to roses.

Root Mealybugs

Root Mealy Bug

Root aphids are not the end of this underground pest affair. Another unpopular plant-feeding insect that sucks plant sap has an underground iteration – and it is often confused with root aphids.

Let’s meet the root mealybug, or ground mealybug, who lives underground.

As you might suppose, root mealybugs feed off a plant’s roots and basal stems. Like all mealybugs, they have a recognizable powdery-waxy white coating. However, root mealybugs don’t have the waxy filaments on their rears that make the leaf-feeding mealybugs so identifiable. 

Unfortunately, Root mealybugs can be present on various plants that gardeners often grow. These include (but are not limited to) African violets, Chrysanthemum, Iris, Gladiolus, Bamboo, Bermuda grass, and many others. They go for both indoor plants and outdoor plants.

Since you probably won’t observe the mealybugs in action when looking from above, sometimes the only tell-tale sign that the plant is infested is its general decline. Also, like with aphids, mealybugs may attract ants.

If you are sure that all the growing conditions have been optimal and there are no other visible pests, perhaps it’s time to check the roots. Also, since root mealybugs often find their way into gardens via new plants, taking all your newest plants out of their pots and conducting a check-up is a wise thing to do.

When you take the rootball out of the pot, the mealybugs will usually be aggregated on its outer side – between the pot walls and the rootball. However, they can easily appear inside the root mass, too.

Mealybugs in their early developmental stages, called “the crawlers,” do just what the nickname says.

Hatching in the soil from the eggs laid by the Mother Root Mealybug (sounds like something out of a Terry Pratchett book, right?), they crawl all around looking for new host plants. That is why it is best to disinfect or heat-treat all the tools, the substrates, and the equipment you’ve been using in the garden (if possible).

Read more on how to sterilize soil with boiling water.

Fungus Gnats

Larvae and adult of dark-winged fungus gnat, Sciaridae

Fungus gnats are small, black flies. As their name suggests, they mainly feed on the fungi in the soil. Because of that, they are attracted to moist and poor-draining substrates that host many fungi.

Adult fungus gnats are black but have shiny wings; when moving on the potting soil surface (usually for egg-laying), the sheen may make them appear silverish or whitish. They live above the ground, but their babies – the tiny translucent maggots that are rarely seen at all – live underground and feed on fungi and other nutritious stuff they find in the soil.

Fungus gnat flies are harmless – they don’t damage plants or bite humans. Unfortunately, when fungus gnat maggot numbers are too high, they can damage root hairs, decreasing the nutrient intake by the plant. This can stunt plant growth and, in the case of seedlings, can even become fatal.

The fungus gnat larvae do the most damage in greenhouses and nurseries. In the outdoor gardens, they rarely touch plants.

While they can be pesky and a nuisance to plant lovers, fungus gnats get too much of a bad rap. The truth is that the damage often attributed to these flies actually happens for other reasons. Two very common ones are overwatering and root decay fungi.

Springtails (Snow Fleas)

tiny white springtail on a leaf

If the little white bugs in your soil are jumping around, feel free to breathe a sigh of relief.

Springtails, also known as snow fleas, are tiny arthropods once classified as the smallest type of insect. However, they are now recognized as a unique invertebrate class called Enthognata.

The name “snow flea” comes from their ability to spring into the air with the help of a catapult-like structure on their rear end. During the spring, they can often be found aggregating on remaining snow cover – hence the nickname “Snow fleas.”

Springtails can be found in various moist environments with plant debris or microorganism plaque. Some of their favorite places to hang around include the undersides of plant pots, ornamental tree bark, rocks, and moist leaf litter.

The best thing about springtails (besides having an awfully cute appearance) is that they do not harm plants, food, clothes, or anything we care about. They eat organic food debris, likely microscopic. If you notice springtails, you can leave them be.

How to Control Tiny White Bugs In Soil?

Fortunately, there are various ways to control all the white soil bugs that require treatment. Even better – there are several effective natural methods for those of you who are not fans of spraying carcinogenic poison all over your plants and (even worse) the soil.

Neem Oil

Neem oil is a universal pest reliever (or organic pesticide, if you want to be precise) with no known adverse effects on humans or the environment. Against root aphids and root mealybugs, you will want to use this oil in the form of a soil drench.

Pour the diluted solution (made according to the manufacturer’s instructions) directly onto the soil around the infested plants. Besides killing the aphids directly, the active compound called azadirachtin will also be taken up by the plant and act as a mild systemic pesticide.

Using the neem oil as a soil drench is also a great way to control problematic nematodes, fungus gnat larvae, and other soil-borne pests.

Beauveria Fungi

Beauveria is a genus of entomopathogenic fungi that parasitizes various arthropods. Like the (in)famous Cordyceps, these fungi infect and kill various insects without the creepy mind control moment.

Fortunately for us, the biocontrol industry has harnessed their murderous moldy ways.

The spores are available commercially to destroy pest insects, including root aphids and mealybugs. The species that is most commonly available is Beauveria bassiana.

Mother nature can be brutal, but in this case, the brutality works in our favor.

Yellow Sticky Traps

Yellow sticky traps don’t have to be a diagnostic tool only. If you’ve ever tried them on fungus gnats, you’re probably aware that sticky traps catch individual tiny insects targeting your plants and pots.

Besides aphids, you can use yellow sticky traps to help trap root aphids that are up and about. In this case, the sticky traps are a substitute for manual physical removal of aphids – you can’t do it with the root-loving kinds. It’s not a treatment per see, but it is a help in reducing pest numbers.

Beneficial Nematodes

Predatory nematodes feed on soil insects they can get a hold of. Slow mealybugs, root aphids, and fungus gnat larvae make perfect prey. Some nematodes are explicitly sold as fungus gnat controllers.

Beneficial nematodes are now widely commercially available as one of the more popular biocontrol options. They can be added to your soil without consequences for your plants or the environment to help keep the soil pests at bay.

Manual or Physical Removal

With plant insect infestations, sometimes acting quickly using what you already have is better than waiting for the right product to arrive.

What you always have at hand are… well, your hands. And a room-temperature water stream, whether it comes from a shower head or a hose.

Here are the steps involved:

  • Isolate the infested plant. You’ve probably already dug it up for proper diagnosis. Now, remove all the soil from its pot or take out as much of the surrounding soil from its former garden bed as possible.
  • Carefully discard the soil. As the substrate is probably infested with unwanted creatures, never re-use it as it is or return it to the garden – you’ll be reintroducing the pests. Either trash it, bake it, or put it in the middle of the compost heap ONLY if it’s healthy and generates high temperatures in its center (effectively sterilizing the soil).
  • Wash the plant roots. The water should be at room temperature – preferably not cold, and never hot. Be careful not to damage or break them, but feel free to cut off any rotten tips. Also, make sure that all the water washes out into the sewer or into a closed container (if in your yard, you can wash the plant over a bucket). Not allowing this water out safeguards you from spreading the infestation.

As the root-feeding insects are depleting the plant minute by minute, removing them ASAP is important if you intend to save the plant.

However, removing all the soil from the root ball and washing plant roots is highly stressful for the already weakened plant, so this is certainly not the best solution.

Also, this method might not work as well for sticky insects (such as mealybugs).

What About Horticultural Soaps?

Now might be a good time to note that the horticultural or insecticidal soaps that work so well for above-ground aphid control will not do much about root aphids.

Simply, the underground insects are, for the most part, sheltered from the spray. For the soap treatment to be effective, pest insects need to be completely drenched in the solution.

While this is easy to achieve for leaf insects, the porosity of the soil, the fact that insects take cover more easily, and are not exposed to sunlight makes it difficult for the soap to work.

Still, if you have your favorite horticultural soap at hand, spraying the plant in the base of the stem (especially if there are any white traces of aphids and mealy bugs) can’t do any harm.

A Special Note on Fungus Gnat Control

If you are experiencing a fungus gnat infestation, the insects are not your only problem. In fact, they’re not the main problem at all.

Usually occurring in potted plants, fungus gnat swarming happens almost exclusively in pots with poor drainage or inadequate and often waterlogged soil.

Compost or vermicompost substrates with no perlite, vermiculite, peat, coco coir, or other drainage enhancers seem especially prone to fungus gnats. That’s no wonder, given how they make overwatering the plant so easy.

Don’t get me wrong – feel free to use neem oil or biological control (nematodes seem to work best for gnats) to treat fungus gnat larvae, but you also want to address the root of the problem – that is the main problem around roots such as overwatering, root rot, and fungal infestations. The main thing is to ensure you use a quality, well-draining substrate.

Keep Reading:

To Sum It Up

I hope you now have a better, deeper knowledge about white creatures (and other stuff) standing out against the dark background of your garden soil.

As you can see, the tiny white bugs and other invertebrates appearing in your soil are not always a danger – but are no laughing matter. What’s most important is to approach the situation without being squeamish, assess what’s going on, and correctly identify your tiny white bugs.

Trust me, to frightened eyes, even those perlite particles can seem alive and kicking!

In the end, you may feel like identification is not worth the hassle, and you should do a “preventive” pest treatment as soon as you encounter small, crawling creatures in your soil. I’m inviting you to think beyond that and realize there are many beneficial insects and other super-interesting creatures you risk destroying.

The alternative – respect, knowledge, and reaching for chemicals only when absolutely necessary – works much better for all parties involved (except for actual pests – sorry, many-legged folks!)

Natural predators of aphids, the aphid midge, green lacewing, lady beetle, parasitic wasp, ground beetle, and damsel bug.

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