Scale insects are a peculiar group and look quite different from the typical insects we encounter day to day. Small, immobile, with no visible legs or antennae, they resemble individual fish scales pressed tightly against the plant on which they are feeding. There are over l50 different kinds of scales in Virginia. Many are common and serious pests of trees, shrubs, and indoor plants.
Scale insects feed on plant sap. They have long, threadlike mouthparts (stylets) six to eight times longer than the insect itself. Feeding by scales slowly reduces plant vigor. Heavily infested plants grow poorly and may suffer dieback of twigs and branches. Occasionally, an infested host will be so weakened that it dies.
Adult scales are protected from insecticides by waxy coverings. Control measures, therefore, must be aimed at unprotected immatures (crawlers) or the overwintering stage. Dormant oils are effective on the overwintering stage of most species, but they can only be applied in early spring before leaves appear. During the summer, control requires accurate identification of the pest species so that hatching dates of crawlers can be determined. Once the pest is identified and proper timing known, any one of several common insecticides can be used. Consult your local Extension Agent for current insecticide recommendations.
Scale insects can be roughly divided into two groups: armored scales and soft scales. Armored scales are so named because they secrete a protective cover over their bodies. Most species overwinter as eggs beneath the female cover. In spring, eggs hatch into tiny mobile crawlers which migrate to new feeding sites. After a few days, crawlers settle, insert their mouthparts, and begin feeding. Soon they secrete a protective cover and lose their legs. Large populations can build up unnoticed before plants begin to show visible symptoms.
In general, soft scales are larger and more convex than armored scales. Many resemble miniature tortoise shells. Soft Scales usually cover themselves with wax, but they lack the detachable protective cover for which armored scales are named. Most soft scales overwinter as immature, fertilized females. In spring they resume feeding, mature, and lay eggs. These hatch into tiny crawlers. After locating suitable feeding sites, crawlers settle and begin feeding. Some species lose their legs once they've settled, but others retain them and are able to crawl short distances to find suitable overwintering sites in the fall. Except for soft scales which infest indoor plants, most have only a single generation per year at our latitude.