Lemon tree blues
August 30, 2006 3:41 PM   Subscribe

Calling gardening experts: what are these small white bugs in the soil of my lemon tree?

I've noticed hundreds, if not thousands, of small white bugs in the soil of my potted dwarf Meyer. They don't look like the pictures of aphids that I've seen. More info: they don't appear to fly, they're multi-legged, and they're too small to photograph with my camera (probably 1/8" to 1/4" long, tops). They appear to be restricted to the soil (I see no infestation of any kind on the trunk, branches, or leaves). They crawl and burrow.

So - what are they, do they pose a risk to the plant, and how do I get rid of them?
posted by aberrant to Home & Garden (11 answers total)
Bonus points if I can get rid of them without compromising the quality, availability, or edibility of the lemons (the tree has only produced fruit once, though it's bloomed probably 8 times since I bought it - which might be a problem in itself).
posted by aberrant at 3:43 PM on August 30, 2006

Could they be mealy bugs, shown here? Insecticidal soap will get rid of them.

Or how about these springtails? They like wet soil, so water less often if these are your bugs.
posted by wryly at 3:59 PM on August 30, 2006

There are a lot of insects that fit that description, including a whole lot of larvae. Can you give more information on body shape and antenna and leg length?
posted by cardboard at 4:04 PM on August 30, 2006

They're narrower than mealybugs. I'll see if I can find better pictures of springtails, but they don't jump and I don't notice any hind legs.

If you have any tips for getting a good picture to post, I'm all ears.
posted by aberrant at 4:06 PM on August 30, 2006

Cardboard: body shape is sort of tubular, elongated, and almost translucent white. Two small (1-2mm?) antennae. I'm now noticing some brownish insects in the soil as well (ugh).

I'm about ready to give up on citrus - it's just too damn hard to care for on a San Francisco balcony. :(
posted by aberrant at 4:13 PM on August 30, 2006

leg length - about the same size as the antennae.
posted by aberrant at 4:13 PM on August 30, 2006

Is there a wood border or any other kind of wood touching soil? They could be termites.
posted by letitrain at 5:29 PM on August 30, 2006

Fungus gnats? Though the size of the bugs that you give indicates otherwise, it's a guess. However, if they're soil-bound, a good drench with a solution of insecticidal soap may do it. Repeat every ten to fourteen days until all looks clear (hatching cycles).
posted by vers at 7:42 PM on August 30, 2006

It could be they're newly-hatched earwigs. The young are translucent and tend to be clustered around their mother for a while. You would be seeing some adults if this were the case though.

If this doesn't work out, try taking one to a garden center or nursery and see if an experienced gardener there knows what it is.
posted by cardboard at 8:02 PM on August 30, 2006

Tip for taking a close up picture -- if your camera has a "microfocus" button, use it. Otherwise, borrow a friend's camera that has the feature.

Barring that, check "What's that bug?" to see if there's anything that looks like it.
posted by parilous at 9:37 AM on August 31, 2006

You didn't ask this, but your lemon might not be fruiting due to: lack of pollinators and/or too much water. Only water when the top three inches of soil is dry, and try pollinating with a paintbrush. You could also grow more plants that attract bees, but if it's on your balcony that may be too close for comfort for you.

As for the bugs, I think I've seen the same thing and never paid any attention. Try mulching your plant with a couple inches of shredded cedar, or pebble if you prefer that look.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:56 PM on August 31, 2006

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