I have white spots on my palms! What do I do?
By Kelly Dean
After bringing a few potted palm trees inside the house to protect them from strong winds during a storm, I notice something weird on the fronds when taking them back outside. They have white spots on the fronds, largely on the underside. I am heartbroken. White spots on palms are usually caused by tiny insects called “scale” and it’s usually fatal – ultimately.
I think about perhaps buying an oil-based insecticide, but I fear that it would just bring more poison into my life, which I don’t need. Also, scale is hard to kill. I research and find out certain wasps and beetles will eat the little critters. So I have a little chat with some local beetles and wasps around the house about specifically visiting my plant enough times to make a difference. But they just rudely go on about their business like I’m saying nothing at all.
Wasps are not very friendly in Florida, by the way.
Yet I find a possible solution by accident. As I am considering giving my plants a dark burial in the trash dumpster, I notice tiny fire ants are quite attracted to the tree and its new, scaly inhabitants. I watch the ants and notice they are chewing on the little white buggers. The ants are all over them like a politician at a free buffet. Possibly, it’s food for their evil queen, Anthilla the Pun.
(Stop me or I’ll pun some more.)
Editor’s note: For clarity, I’m talking about the fire ants when they’re small, young workers, not the big ones the size of a St. Bernard. The “bigguns” watch “Patton” every time it’s on HBO and bite just because they’re channeling the Carthaginians too.
I have written plenty about how much I dislike fire ants. I have fought them in the trenches; I have fought them on the plains. But this time, I think I’ll work with them a bit and see if we can solve my palm problem. I can always kill them later (that sounds worse when reading it back).
Hey, I didn’t invent the “Circle of Life,” Mufasa did – and Elton John.
I notice the fire ants are climbing a wall to gain access directly to the leaves, so once the ants get on the leaves, I rotate the plant to force the ants to trek the whole plant to find a way off. This also forces new ants onto the fresh leaves, thereby, exposing more ants to the scale. It’s psychotic, diabolical and twisted — yet earth-friendly too. However, it only confused them for a day or so; they just wandered around like zombies.
Instead, I find it’s better to cut off the goner fronds and just let the ants do their thing with the rest of the plant before they get too bad. I wait.
So guess what? I believe they are killing the little white bugs indeed, yet their white powdery exteriors remain like a chalky exoskeleton on the leaves. So I plan to give it more time, and then rinse the plant with water.
I still have a fire ant problem, but in my view, I have lessened the risk of infecting other palms with this microscopic white menace. And it’s completely natural.
A couple of words of caution though. It’s not a good idea to mess around with an actual fire ant mound. The ants mentioned above are the workers out seeking food away from the mound. And they are easy to find away from the main ant hill.
Just put your tree in their search area near a wall where you see a dozen or so milling around, not on a mound, lest you want a scurrying, defensive-aggressive mess on your hands — and feet and legs.
Fire ant bites and stings are unpleasant, regardless of their size.
Ultimately, you want the tree back for your very own, not as an ant condo. So once the palm is un-scaled, you can deal with the ants. But that’s another article.