Bromeliads are among my favourite houseplants. They are very easy to grow but can be quite spectacular. You’ll be familiar with the pineapple, the most well-known of the family, and you may have seen several of the ones sold as houseplants. However, the family is enormous and quite varied. Most have the familiar central “vase”, from which the flower emerges. Some have such a large vase that small frogs live their entire life-cycle in them.
I’ve given lots away as many reproduce quite readily; once they’ve flowered they grow new shoots from the bottom and, once the original vase has died, you can split the resulting plants. I bought a new one recently, already in flower. Note that the large, colourful parts are actually bracts; modified leaves. The flowers on many are just small and don’t usually last long. Here are three pictures zooming closer in sequence.
I got a plant with only a few of these pests on it. I picked them off by hand and thought nothing more of it. I didn’t realize that they had tiny babies that I overlooked and that although they move extremely slowly, they reproduce at a high rate.
Coins for scale (pun intended); depending on where you are, Canadian 25¢ (same size as American), British £, 2€ and 50 Kč (Czech crowns) from my trips this year.
The leaf is a Swiss Cheese Plant (Monstera deliciosa) which has thick, leathery leaves. I hadn’t noticed that it had got some of these insects on it, must have crawled from another plant I had nearby. This leaf was badly infested; there were just a few on the next leaf.
The females can’t fly, so it’s they only way they can get there. Apparently, in the wild they can just get blown in the wind but I don’t think there is enough air current in the house.
Eventually, they can get in enough numbers that they can cause serious damage, so I’m going to have to watch this one closely. Normally, I pick off most, then use soapy water, but the adults have a waxy coat, so I mix in a bit of rubbing alcohol which should dissolve it. This plant is big for a house plant so I won’t be able to move it.
Here is a close-up. While preparing for this, I finally saw one move, just detectable under a 16× lens. You can just see the six legs on the smaller ones. Look how flat they are. The biggest one is about 1mm (1/16″).
I used side lighting on the next picture to give you some idea how little shadow they cast.
If you flip over one of the ones with a hard, waxy shell, you see they are stuffed full of eggs. It is hard to imagine how the actual insect could fit into the shell with all the eggs, or how what little body it had left could have laid all those eggs. You can see how easy it is to miss the tiny first instars (stages of an insect’s growth) when they hatch from these eggs. Barely visible with naked eye, this is about as much magnification as I can squeeze out of my camera with macro lens and macro tubes combined.
I decided to practice my macro photography for a bit today, in order to procrastinate on my other tasks. It turns out I need a lot of practice.
I needed a subject that would keep fairly still so I decided that the horrible pests that were attacking my shamrock would do. No need to fret if the lights were too bright for them.
Here’s the shamrock:
The flashlight (torch for British readers) is there both for scale and to show what I’m using for lighting – I bought the brightest LED flashlight I could at Canadian Tire. It wasn’t very expensive, I just looked for the highest lumen value, ignoring any that didn’t even tell you. Some of the bigger ones that claimed to be “super bright” actually had a lower lumen value and as a bonus it focuses the beam from broad to narrow, exactly what I needed.
So then I put a macro lens and extension tubes and went for as close up as I could get. This is the same leaf, zoomed in to the point where the three leaflets fan out from the stem.
Here are three mealy bugs in a row with a baby one on top of the middle one. The one at the top left is just taking a stroll. The middle one and the bottom right have their beaks stuck in the plant. You can see why they don’t need to suck; that middle one is bloated right out from the pressure of the sap in the plant. The bottom one is harder to see but the shiny speck at the bottom right end is a drop of “honeydew” which is what ants like to collect – the plant pumps its sap at such high pressure that the bugs have to secrete some of the sugary fluid.
I don’t know why the mealy bugs on shamrock wander around naked like that but they do more often than not. On other plants and in some places on shamrock, they spin themselves a little hiding place to make it harder for predators to eat them; the sticky stuff gets in the mandibles of predators like lady bugs (ladybirds) and makes it harder for them to eat the bugs themselves. These pictures are on a Christmas cactus.
In spite of them lending themselves out for photography practice, I must confess that animals were harmed in this experiment. I squished them all.