Gardening: Small and annoying things that bug you

Eileen Ward

The royal palm bug is around town in a big way. I took a drive and out of 20 royal palms I looked at, three or four had signs of this bug. We had this problem a couple of years ago and this bug has a tendency to be sporadic when it comes to infestations.

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In fact, most years the damage from this insect is almost non-existent. Natural controls which help keep the populations low include, heavy summer rains which wash them from the trees and also really cold winter temperatures. There are also predatory spiders which help with control unless their numbers are low. So we may be seeing higher numbers this summer due to a rather dry summer last year followed by a warm winter.

File: Royal palm bugs are almost as flat as a piece of paper and feed between the closed leaflets of newly emerging fronds.

The damage from this bug is most severe in spring and early summer. The adults are less than 1/10th of an inch with tan to yellow bodies, red eyes and transparent wings. In other words hard to see. The nymphs are even smaller. The females lay one to two eggs a day along the midrib of the new leaflets. When they hatch, they feed inside of these still folded leaflets by sucking on the leaf tissue.

This causes a stippling of the tissue followed by browning and finally a ragged appearance of the emerging fronds. If the populations are low this will result in aesthetic damage only. But with higher infestations this damage can result in a lower ability for the palm tree to photosynthesize for food causing a decline in health or even death of the trees. The aesthetic damage is also problematic because the damage is on the new growth which means you will have to look at the ragged fronds until they have migrated to the lower half of the canopy and finally are shed by the tree.

So what to do? You will have to treat with a systemic insecticide which can be applied by either spraying (hard if the tree is very tall), drenching the root system or injection of the trunk. Merit, Bayer Crop Science and Safari have all been proven effective. These systemic insecticides are also long lasting, from nine to twelve months. If you see this insect damage in your yard or neighborhood you could treat your palms to try and avoid severe damage. While you could apply an insecticide every spring to ward off any damage, this would probably be unnecessary most years. Especially if we have heavy summer rains or a very cold winter the year before.

While the spiraling whitefly is not as pervasive as in past years it is still showing up on the occasional palm. You may remember the ficus whitefly which has been causing trouble with ficus hedges for the last few years but this one is different. It does not cause the severe plant damage or branch die back of its predecessor. Look for white spirals on the undersides of the leaves. There will be a buildup of a white, waxy substance as well. This waxy buildup can build up to amounts so great it begins to drip off the affected plants and onto cars, patios and pools causing a sticky mess. This honeydew is actually the insect’s excrement and can turn into what is referred to as sooty mold which will then turn black.

The best thing to do when you first discover you have this whitefly is to try and wash as much off the plant as possible with a strong stream of water. Follow this with a treatment of the same insecticides as mentioned for the royal palm bug. These can also be applied as a spray to the foliage, a drench of the roots or trunk injection. You can treat with an insecticidal soap or horticultural oil but you will have to reapply once a week for approximately a month for complete control. The systemic insecticides will once again last for up to a year.

One final note about summer safety in South Florida. Naegleria fowleri is called the brain eating amoeba. This amoeba lives in warm fresh water found in lakes and ponds in southern states, especially in the summer. It can also be found in swales with warm, standing water. Something we have a lot of this summer. A boy boogie boarding in a swale two years ago in Florida contracted this amoeba and consequent illness called primary amoebic meningsencephalitis. The amoeba enters the brain by entering the nose. While it is not common, only 138 cases since 1962, it is cause to avoid warm bodies of water and flooded swales unless you use a nose plug. Also avoid stirring up the bottom sediment which is where they live.

Why am I putting this in my column? After reading the story about the boy two years ago I advised my lawn maintenance employees to avoid weed whipping overgrown swales that they could not mow with the mower because of standing water. This action could certainly send this dirty water up the nose. And if you are a parent never let your children play in warm flood waters.

Eileen and Peter Ward have owned a landscape and lawn maintenance company for 35 years. Eileen can be reached at or 239-394-1413.