Whiteflies are a pest we typically see in the fall but if you look around, you’ll notice high densities of them now. Despite their name, whiteflies are more closely related to an aphid or scale insect than a fly. They are 1/16 of an inch long (about the size of a gnat) and resemble small moths. They can be found on the undersides of host plant leaves and their behavior is easily recognizable as they scatter from the leaves when they are disturbed.
You’ll find whiteflies on a variety of plants ranging from ornamentals such as ficus, poinsettia, hibiscus, and ivy to vegetables like tomato, pepper, eggplant and okra. Some species feed on sweet potatoes, vegetables in the cabbage family, and citrus.
There are several species of whiteflies in Florida but the three main species of agricultural and horticultural concern are the silverleaf whitefly (also known as the sweet potato whitefly), citrus whitefly, and the ficus whitefly. Whiteflies have piercing-sucking mouthparts with which they feed on plants. The top side of leaves on infested plants may become pale or spotted due to whiteflies feeding on the undersides of leaves. It’s not uncommon for an infestation of whiteflies to go unnoticed until leaves turn yellow or drop unexpectedly. Some whitefly species can cause greater damage by transmitting plant viruses.
Whiteflies, along with aphids, scales and mealybugs excrete a sugary substance known as honeydew. This honeydew coats the surface of the plant where the insect feeds and facilitates the growth of a black fungus called sooty mold. Ants and wasps also feed on the honeydew secreted by these insects and may serve as an indicator that a plant is infested with whiteflies or other honeydew secreting insects.
Adult female whiteflies can lay anywhere from 200-400 eggs in her lifetime. The eggs are laid on the undersides of leaves. These eggs hatch into nymphs (also known as crawlers) after 4-12 days. From there, the crawlers will insert their mouthparts into the leaves of host plants where they will molt, pupate and then become adult whiteflies. This process takes anywhere from four weeks to six months, depending on temperature and humidity.
Whiteflies are difficult to control due to their prolific reproductive cycle. It is difficult to get rid of whiteflies once there is an infestation. As with dealing with most insects, proper plant selection, irrigation, and fertilization are critical for managing whiteflies. Removing sources of infestation such as weeds around the garden or old plant debris around the yard can help prevent whitefly populations from carrying over to the next season. Natural predators such as lady beetles, lacewings and predatory mites can help keep whitefly populations in check.
Insecticides such as insecticidal soap or horticultural oil can be used to help reduce whitefly populations. Be sure to always read the label for instructions. For more information on whiteflies, please contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office.