Male Mealybugs

2022 May 29

For a while now, we’d been seeing these extremely tiny flying insects in the house, particularly near the kitchen sink. They were about the size of this comma (,) and so light-colored that they looked white. They were hard to make out, but they appeared to be kind of a “T” shape, with wings sticking out to the side and the abdomen hanging down while they hovered. It wasn’t possible to photograph them in the air. So on May 28, 2022, I got a piece of packing tape and gently waved it towards one of them until it touched the tape and got stuck. And here it is:

It wasn’t seriously stuck to the packing tape, and gradually walked to the edge. I only had time for one more photo before he flew off. In this picture, we can see that he had a pair of long tendrils projecting from the tip of his abdomen.

I then caught another one the same way, and he was a bit more thoroughly stuck. This gave me time for a few more photos before he got himself recombobulated.

I kind of suspected what these were, and BugGuide confirmed it: they are mealybugs, family Pseudococcidae. Specifically, they are the males of the mealybugs that were on our jade plants in the winter of 2021. We had managed to knock back the mealybugs by putting the plants outside over the summer, but they have come back to some extent this past winter (although nothing like as bad as they were before).

So anyway, this is a really sexually dimorphic species. The females look like this, with no wings and only stumpy little legs.

The winged males can easily go from plant to plant fertilizing the mealybug females, while the females can only move slowly and may never leave their host plant. If they hadn’t been observed either mating, or maturing from immature mealybugs, I am pretty sure that no one would ever have realized that the males were the same species as the females.

The males themselves are harmless, but they (a) make it possible for the females to lay fertile eggs, and (b) are an indicator that your houseplants have a mealybug problem when you find them flying about in the house.

So if you see these little T-shaped white specks hovering about your house, check your houseplants for mealybugs.

2 Responses
  1. June 2, 2022

    The male flies and the female just sits around? Crazy! You wouldn’t think such a species would evolve. If the male could fly, then having the female fly would make them much better suited for taking over the world.

  2. June 2, 2022

    There are actually quite a number of insects that have winged males and wingless (and sometimes practically immobile) females. The benefit appears to be that the males can spread around genetic information over a wide area, while the females hunker down in a protected location with access to food, and pump out the eggs. Usually the immature forms can disperse themselves for a while immediately after they hatch, often by being wafted away on the breeze. The reason spreading genetic information around is important, is so that they can spread around genes that give resistance to various diseases. This keeps them from having populations over a wide area that are all so genetically identical that an outbreak of disease can wipe out 100% of them.

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