Many species of the spider mite (family: Tetranychidae), so common in North America, attack both indoor and outdoor plants. They can be especially destructive in greenhouses.
Spider mites are not true insects, but are classed as a type of arachnid, relatives of spiders, ticks and scorpions. Adults are reddish brown or pale in color, oval-shaped and very small (1/50 inch long) – about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. Immature stages resemble the adults except only smaller.
What Are Mites?
Mites live in colonies, mostly on the underside of leaves, and feed by piercing leaf tissue and sucking up the plant fluids. Feeding marks show up as light dots on the leaves. As feeding continues, the leaves turn yellow and may dry up and drop off.
Spider mites are most common in hot, dry conditions, especially where their natural enemies have been killed off by insecticide use. Some of the many species common in North America are predators of the plant-feeding mites, which make up the vast majority. They are also very prolific, which is why heavy infestations often build up unnoticed before plants begin to show damage.
Large populations are often accompanied by fine webbing. Host plants are many and include strawberries, melons, beans, tomatoes, eggplant, ornamental flowers, trees and most houseplants.
Spider Mites Life Cycle
Most mite species overwinter as eggs on the leaves and bark of host plants. In early spring, as temperatures warm, tiny six-legged larvae begin hatching and feed for a few days before seeking shelter where they molt into the first nymphal stage. Nymphs have eight-legs and pass through two more molts before becoming mature adults.
After mating, females continuously produce as many as 300 eggs over a couple of weeks. Hot, dry weather favors rapid development of these pests. During such conditions the time it takes to pass from egg to adult may occur in as little as 5 days. There are several overlapping generations per year.
Spider mites, almost too small to be seen, pass into our gardens without notice. No matter how few, each survives by sucking material from plant cells. Large infestations cause visible damage. Leaves first show patterns of tiny spots or stipplings. They may change color, curl and fall off. The mites activity is visible in the tight webs that are formed under leaves and along stems.
How to Control
Chemical pesticide use actually encourages the spread of spider mites by killing the beneficial insects that prey on them. Mites are also known to develop quick resistance to various pesticides. For these reasons, it’s important to control mites with effective natural and organic methods.
- Prune leaves, stems and other infested parts of plants well past any webbing and discard in trash (and not in compost piles). Don’t be hesitant to pull entire plants to prevent the mites spreading to its neighbors.
- Commercially available beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, lacewing and predatory mites are important natural enemies. For best results, make releases when pest levels are low to medium.
- Nuke Em, a relatively new organic insecticide containing food-grade ingredients, works fast and kills most indoor gardening pests at the egg, larvae or adult stage. Best of all, it does this without leaving a residue on the leaves that can impact flavor.
- BotaniGard ES is a highly effective biological insecticide containing Beauveria bassiana, an entomopathogenic fungus that attacks a long-list of troublesome crop pests – even resistant strains! Weekly applications can prevent insect population explosions and provide protection equal to or better than conventional chemical pesticides.
- Mix Pure Neem Oil with Coco-Wet and apply every 3-5 days to kill pest eggs indoors and interrupt the reproductive cycle. Make sure to spray all plant parts, including the undersides of leaves. Do NOT apply when temperatures exceed 90˚F and wait at last six hours before turning lights on.
- If populations are high, use a least-toxic, short-lived pesticide (Take Down Spray, Doktor Doom Foggers) to reduce infestations, then release predatory mites to maintain control.
- Insecticidal soap or botanical insecticides can be used to spot treat heavily infested areas.
- Water stress makes both trees and garden plants more susceptible to mite infestations. Make sure your plants are properly watered.