How Do You Control Magnolia Scale?

Using Insecticidal Spray at the Right Time Is Key

Campbell's magnolia tree (Magnolia campbellii) in bloom.
Ellen Rooney/Photolibrary/Getty Images

A reader recently related a scene on one of her trees that perfectly describes a common insect problem and prompted a response revealing how to control magnolia scale (Neolecanium cornuparvum, Thro). Here is how her email read:

"I have a magnolia tree that is looking brown and moldy. Upon closer inspection, I noticed scales on the branches that looked like ladybugs attached to the bark. I removed all the bugs from the branches and pruned off the dead branches.

Is there anything I can spray on the magnolia tree to give it a chance to survive?"

How Do You Control Magnolia Scale?

Her description was apt. What she had is, indeed, called magnolia "scale." The first thing that homeowners have to realize in learning how to control magnolia scale is that it looks and acts very little like a typical insect.

The life cycle of a magnolia scale insect is dominated by a long period during which it just looks like the proverbial "bump on a log." But do not let their innocent appearance fool you, because they are sucking fluids out of your plants. There are two general groups of scale (although there are thousands of different species): the armored-body types and the soft-body types. Magnolia scale belongs to the latter group.

Due to their "inanimate" appearance, however, people are often caught off-guard when they finally witness evidence of an infestation. Worse, they may misdiagnose the situation as a mold problem or even an ant problem (ants are attracted to the honeydew excreted by magnolia scale, as is explained in this article on organic ant control).

And yes, there is an insecticidal spray you can apply to fight the problem. But for effective magnolia scale control, it is essential that you understand the scale insect's life cycle, because that cycle is what determines when to spray with insecticide to control magnolia scale.

The Life Cycle of the Magnolia Scale

Scale insects pass through stages (phases) in their life cycle called "instars." The Penn State Department of Entomology explains the life cycle of these insects; a summary of their explanation follows:

The insect overwinters at the tips of the tree's branches in what is known as the "nymph" instar. These nymphs start feeding in spring and reach maturity in the middle of the summer, at which time mating occurs. "Females later give birth to living young called crawlers in late August or early September." But, soon after, the crawling stops, and they will cling to the very twigs upon which overwintering will take place -- thus bringing us full circle.

When to Spray With Insecticide to Kill Scale Insects

To control magnolia scale successfully, you must spray the insecticide (for example, malathion or acephate) at the right time in this insect's life cycle (namely, when it is in the crawler stage). These insects are more vulnerable to sprays at that particular time in their life cycle than at other periods, and that time is generally late summer. The Cornell Entomology Department explains that, once the scale insect progresses past the crawler stage in its life cycle, "the exoskeleton hardens, making it less susceptible to contact insecticides."

Since the insects are at the crawler stage in late summer, then, that is the best time to spray (aim for September). If you wish to try an organic insecticide, try neem oil.