Bonsai Pest Protection

Bonsai trees, like many other plants, need protection from nasty chewing, sucking and biting insects. They also need to be protected from many of the fungi which cause many visually noticeable problems with many living parts of the tree.

I believe the best form of treatment is to ensure the health of the tree; in this way you enable the tree itself to ward off most attacks. A healthy plant will have sufficient water, it will be suitably fed, have good air circulation around the foliage and healthy roots growing in a well drained growing medium.

You may also consider using one of the long lasting general systemic insecticides on the market today as this will help prevent most attacks.

The following are the most common pests of interest to bonsai artists, and which you are most likely to encounter.

Ants

Ants on your bonsai can be used as an indication that you most likely also have aphids. This is because ants often carry the eggs of aphids to suitable vegetative growth in order to eventually farm the sugary secretion they produce called "Honeydew." The ants themselves are generally not a problem but if you see them in large numbers around your tree they may have built a nest in the pot, in which case they should be dealt with.

Ants and aphids on a bonsai tree

Symptoms

As mentioned already, ants themselves are generally not a problem but they often carry aphid eggs and fungus such as the "black sooty mould." They sometimes will also build nests in your bonsai pots and in the process of doing so will excavate a lot of your growing media.

Treatment

If you do find an ant nest it can be a sign that your trees are not being watered correctly, however in the case of some species such as pines which prefer drier growing conditions, this cannot be altered. Simply dipping the whole pot into a container of water will not permanently solve the problem either. You will need to use a pesticide such as Koinor as a soil drench, and which will prevent many other common pests. You may also use Kemprin.

Aphids

These are one of the most common bonsai tree pests. Aphids suck plant sap from the plant but they can also carry diseases. Aphids are generally green, but you can also find them in grey or black. You will usually find them on new stem growth or the bottom leaves. As these pests can cause considerable damage to your bonsai tree in a short period of time, it's a good idea to look out for them during the active growing periods when doing your watering rounds.

aphids bonsai trees treatment

Symptoms

Weak leaves and branches are usually telltale signs of aphid attack. Some new growth may display curling or other deformations. Aphids also produce a sticky, sugary secretion called “honeydew.” Honeydew is enjoyed immensely by ants so you will usually see ants crawling up and down your trees as they harvest the dew. Another growth soon develops as a result of the dew, called “black sooty mould."

Treatment

Wash off affected growth with a jet of water if the population is not too large. You may also rely on the natural enemy of aphids; ladybirds and more specifically their larva, however this might be too late to prevent the weakening of the tree which occurs as a result of these sap sucking pests. I would recommend systemic insecticide Koinor as it has season long action and not only against aphids. The next best all rounder is Plant Care which is broad spectrum and acts for 1 month but will act quicker than Koinor in this instance as it can also be used as a spray. Seizer is another suitable treatment, is a broad spectrum insecticide and will work on many of the other common pests listed here including white fly and even red spider mites.

Caterpillars

These are generally the larval stage of butterflies or moths. Most damage is done above ground, to the leaves which can rapidly be stripped to the stem. Some of the fig bonsai are particularly prone to a seasonal, small black caterpillar which eats their leaves. It is important that as soon as you see caterpillar damage to address the issue and remove the offending pest before they do further damage.

Caterpillar bonsai tree damage

Symptoms

The damage left by caterpillars is usually very easily noticed in the form of chewed leaves.

Treatment

Sometimes the most effective treatment is simply to remove them by hand, if you can find them, as they are often well camouflaged. Look under leaves, underneath branches and on the underside of the trunk. Sometimes you will even find them retreating from the daylight by hiding underneath the pot. I find that if I use a long lasting systemic insecticide such as Plant Care I can control not only caterpillars throughout the growing season, but many other problem pests as well. Or you may also use Kemprin or Malasol.

Mealy Bugs

Mealy bugs are easily identifiable as small white furry insects. This white "cotton ball" is actually a waxy covering which mealy bugs use to protect themselves. They are normally found in groups, apart from the Australian bug which usually is found as an individual. (There may well be multiple Australian bugs on a single tree however) Mealy bugs are usually found on the underside of branches or in the cover of groups of leaves. Another type of mealy bug inhabits the root zone of your bonsai tree. When re-potting, it is a good idea to check the roots for these insects.

Mealy bug bonsai pests

Symptoms

Your tree's growth will be stunted as these pests suck sap. Leaves might show signs of drooping and if the infestation is bad enough the leaves will actually turn yellow and die. Mealy bugs can also cause the development of black sooty mold.

Treatment

During dormant growth periods (Winter) Lime Sulphur is an excellent treatment for not only scale but many other pests and fungi. During active growing periods Koinor, Plant Care or Seizer are the best treatments. Kemprin may also be used.

Fungus

Some fungi can be detected by a white mold which can be found on the foliage. Others leave orange or brown patches or even blisters spreading over the underside of the leaves, which curl up and eventually drop. Other still will attack your roots in favourable conditions and can kill a tree. The following are the most commonly found fungi and how to identify them.

Species and Symptoms
Black Spot

Black spot bonsai fungi

Black Spot is a common fungus which attacks foliage and manifests as black spots or patches on the leaf. Affected leaves will not recover and will need to be removed from the tree. Watering infected foliage will result in this fungus spreading even further.

Leaf Spot

leaf spot

Leaf Spot is very often confused with Black Spot. Evidence of infection are white, black, brown, or grey spots on leaves, but woody growth such as twigs and branches may also be affected. Once again infected growth should be removed as soon as possible and an appropriate treatment applied to the tree.

Mildew

Powdery Mildew

Mildew is a type of fungi which is prevalent in consistently damp conditions, receiving little sunlight and in areas of poor ventilation (So bonsai positioned indoors are particularly prone). White "fluffy" growth in the case of Powdery Mildew, or a unsightly black substance in the case of Sooty mould can be seen on the affected areas

Rust

Rust on bonsai leaves

Another common fungal disease which you may encounter can appear as yellow, orange, red, or brown distortions on leaves. These leaves may ultimately curl up, die and fall off.

Root Rot

This fungus, called "phytophthora" grows in your bonsai tree root zone and is a result of poor drainage. It causes roots to turn brown and mushy, and of course die. You will generally be able to determine root rot through a combination of factors such as leaves which become discolored, weak branches which break easily, an overall weak tree together and water which takes some time to drain from your bonsai pot.

Do not confuse root rot with the white, beneficial mycorrhizal fungi which can be found in the growing media of healthy pines, shown in the image below.

Treatment

It is always a good idea to remove any affected foliage you can find on your tree, and certainly those leaves which may have fallen onto the pot or on your benches. Make sure to place your tree in an area with sufficient sunlight and ventilation. In the case of root rot, affected roots must be pruned away and the bonsai transplanted into new, fast draining soil (I would recommend something like pure Groperl). As this re-potting might be out of season the tree will be greatly stressed so all feeding should be halted until signs of new, healthy foliage is observed.

Treatments include Lime sulfur which has for a very long time been the fungicide of choice. Not only is it a broad spectrum fungicide, it also prevents the overwintering of many common pests such as aphids, scale and mites. However it can only be used during dormant periods, or damage to your foliage will result (on deciduous trees). Use Orius and/or Odeon as they are both broad spectrum fungicides. Orius is system and so will last longer. Odeon is a contact treatment so if washed off there will be no further protection. Alternatives which can be used year round are Rose Protector. Specialist bonsai nurseries carry a product called Aliette, which can be applied to trees which have been attacked by root rot.

Red Spider Mites

This is one of the most common of the mites that attack bonsai and is also of the most dangerous pests you are likely to encounter as once they have settled on a tree, they can quickly kill it.

Red spider mites

Symptoms

Evidence of their attack is browning growth, leaves with yellow or brown markings. Very fine webs are also evidence of red spider mite. Evergreens such as junipers and pines are generally the first to be attacked by this pest. As mites are really tiny, they are usually not visible with the naked eye on the tree. If you suspect a tree is infected, gently tap a branch over a piece of white paper. If dots which appear on the page move then you have a case of mites.

Treatment

You may use Seizer, Lime Sulphur or Koinor. Plant Care may also be used as a system and contact spray for fast results and is the solution I would recommend.

Scale

Scale pests come in a range of colours, from transparent through white, yellow, brown to black. When they are young they move around the tree but eventually fix onto one part where they suck the sap. They often appear like bumps on the trunk, branches or leaves. You will generally not find only one scale insect on a tree, normally there are many of them clustered together, but they may also be found spaced apart. Sometimes its easy to miss them as they adhere to the underside of vegetative material. You will often find ants and sooty mould on trees infected with scale too.

Scale on bonsai trees

Symptoms

Branches will show signs of drooping and foliage will sometimes wilt, turning a yellow colour. Generally the tree will show signs of weakness.

Treatment

The best solution is to remove scale insects by hand before their numbers grow too much. You can try using an insecticide, but this is not always effective due to the protective shell. For small outbreaks, painting the shells with alcohol sometimes works. Many different pesticides available including Koinor, Lime Sulphur and Malasol will work well for scale pests. Plant Care, a new product available today acts as a system and contact spray and provides month long protection.

Slugs and Snails

These pests like damp conditions so they are most common during the rainy season, however they can be found throughout the year. They can easily strip an entire bonsai in a single night, the time when they are most active. New Celtis or Chinese Hackberry leaves are very prone to attack from these pests, but the leaves of many other bonsai species are irresistible to slugs and snails.

snails

Treatment

Several different organic and chemical based pellet or granule baits are available on the market.

White Grubs

Root systems of bonsai trees are attacked by the white, darn ugly looking larvae of many beetles and often the evidence of attack will only be visible long after the larva have brought the tree to within a leaf's thickness of its life! I am pretty sure that every one of us have had a run in with these larvae, which the birds don't even seem keen to eat.

vine weevil larvae bonsai trees

Symptoms

If the roots are being eaten by the larvae then you will most likely notice this by studying the leaves, which should begin to show signs of wilting. Evidence of the adult beetles attacks will be chewed leaves with notches in them, not the more rounded signs of snails, slugs or caterpillars. These chew marks will be sharper and in a sort of U-shape.

Treatment

Plant Care is apparently the only product on the market that is effective for an extended period of time against these pests. Something else which I can claim from personal experience only, so I am not certain, is that the larvae prefer growing mediums rich in organics. Since using soil-less growing mediums consisting mostly of LECA and Groperl, Vermiculite or Peat, I no longer encounter this pest so I can strongly suggest the Professional Mix, since using this I have never found a white grub again.

Thrips

Thrips are one of the more difficult pests to spot as they are tiny. Unfortunately the damage they inflict is not as difficult to spot. They feed in large groups and can leap into the air or fly if disturbed. Apparently they first damage the surface of the leaf and then proceed to suck the sap.

Bonsai thrips

Symptoms

After thrips have attacked and sucked sap from a leaf one can easily see the silvery, semi-translucent trails which remain. Sometimes you might notice black or brown spots which are droppings.

Treatment

If using a chemical, contact type of spray it is best to apply the spray during the heat of the day as this is when thrips are more exposed as they explore their host tree. It is also very important to spray both the top and bottom surfaces of the leaves to break the cycle of infestation. I prefer to use systemic treatments which will prevent these pests from becoming a threat. Use Koinor to prevent and control thrips. Plant Care may be used for faster action.

Whitefly

If a branch infected with whitefly is disturbed you will see many small, white flies scatter. They are found in large groups, typically on the underside of leaves. These pests suck sap from the plant and are able to overwinter, so its another reason why winter spraying with lime sulphur is such a good preventative measure for not only whitefly but many other common pests. In my experience the trees most affected by whitefly is the olive and false olives.

White fly bonsai olive trees

Symptoms

When whitefly suck the sap from the plant they secrete a sugary substance called "Honeydew." Honeydew in turn can lead to fungal diseases such as sooty black mould. Trees affected will be weakened. In bad infestations leaves may dry out and turn yellow, and growth of the tree will in turn be stunted. The easiest place to look for them is on the underside of leaves near to the leaf veins, where the most sap is. If the adults have flown off they may still leave some evidence behind in the form of their eggs which they also lay on the underside of the leaf.

Treatment

Since I was introduced to Koinor and began using it on my olives I have never again had problems with whitefly. If you already have an infestation it might be best to spray with Plant Care as it will have an immediate effect and it is also systemic so will provide month long protection. The best part of it is that I only need to treat once during the growing season, as a soil drench and then I no longer need worry.