ENTFACT-432: Obscure Scale | Download PDF
by Lee Townsend, Extension Specialist
University of Kentucky College of Agriculture
Obscure scales are important armored scales that can infest oak, hickory, walnut, maple and willow. They live on branches and twigs and use their piercing-sucking mouthparts to feed on sap. Heavy infestations can be found on stressed oaks in urban settings and may cause branch dieback. Infestations of obscure scale rarely kill a tree but can weaken it and make it more susceptible to other problems.
There is only one generation a year. Females lay eggs from June into August with peak crawler activity occurring around mid-July. This long period of activity increases the difficulty of control with a single spray. Newly hatched crawlers tend to settle under covers of mature scales, producing crusted layers on severely infested limbs. This behavior provides extra protection for the insects by preventing thorough spray coverage.
A careful inspection is needed to detect this dingy-colored scale on infested branches. The dirty gray wax covers of females, about 1/8" in diameter, blend in with the bark. Layers of these scales can build up over time. The waxy coverings can be scraped easily from the bark of branches that are several years old.
Scale control can be challenging and may need to be repeated over several seasons. This is due in part to the protection from contact insecticides provided by the waxy coverings over immobile, mature scales. Proper timing of insecticide applications is a major key to success. Applications must target newly hatched scale crawlers which are active in June and July. Crawlers are very susceptible to control measures as they move over plant surfaces to find a feeding spot. Once settled on the plant, they begin to secrete a covering and are protected by it.
Alternatives for Crawler Control
• Cultural control
Scales tend to thrive on stressed plants. Following a recommended fertility program and watering regime will promote plant health. However, over-fertilization favors scale buildup. If practical, improve plant sites to reduce stress and promote growth. Severely prune back heavily infested branches and protect new growth with insecticide applications.
• Insecticidal Sprays
Horticultural oils kill by suffocation or after penetrating over-wintering stages of the insect. Consequently, they may not be effective where several layers of scale coverings have accumulated.
Dormant oils are typically applied during February or March but may not be very effective against armored scales. Highly refined supreme, superior, or summer oils can be used on many trees and shrubs during the growing season. Read the product label for guidelines on plant sensitivity and temperature restriction before buying and using these products.
Insecticidal soaps are long chain fatty acids that kill susceptible insects through direct contact. Like horticultural oils, they require thorough coverage. Soaps leave no residue so repeated applications may be needed for some pests. These products may burn the foliage of sensitive plants, such as Japanese maple, so check the label for information about the plant species that you intend to treat.
A variety of natural and synthetic insecticides are labeled for use as sprays to control scale crawlers on landscape trees and shrubs. While the residual life of these products is generally longer than oils and soaps, timing, coverage, and precautions on damage to some plant species are very similar to those for oils and soaps.
• Systemic insecticides
Imidacloprid (Bayer Advanced Garden Tree & Shrub Insect Control Concentrate) is applied as a drench around the root zone of infested plants. This water soluble insecticide is taken up by the roots and transported throughout the plant where it is ingested by sap feeding insects. This provides a means of suppressing armored scales without reliance on sprays. However, it may need to be applied several weeks before crawlers are active for best results.
The success or failure of control efforts may not be readily apparent but here are some things to check.
- Live scales should produce a liquid when mashed, dead scales will be dry and not "bleed" when crushed.
- New foliage should have a healthier appearance once the scale burden has been removed. Buds should break a little earlier than when the plant was infested and expanded leaves should have normal color and turgor.
Scale insects can be attacked by a variety of lady beetles, predatory mites, and small parasitic wasps. Lady beetle adults and larvae can be seen but mites and parasitic wasps are very difficult to see. You can conserve natural enemies by using insecticidal soaps and oils which have limited impact on beneficial species in comparison to other control alternatives.
CAUTION! Pesticide recommendations in this publication are registered for use in Kentucky, USA ONLY! The use of some products may not be legal in your state or country. Please check with your local county agent or regulatory official before using any pesticide mentioned in this publication.
Of course, ALWAYS READ AND FOLLOW LABEL DIRECTIONS FOR SAFE USE OF ANY PESTICIDE!