Oleander is gorgeous with its large blooming flowers and dark green foliage. Getting rid of those pesky caterpillars, beetles, or aphids can be a real hassle while you see your plant getting chewed.
Not only are they appealing to humans, but they’re also vulnerable to pests.
I guess the colorful petals draw in bugs just as much as it draws in humans.
In this guide, you’ll learn about the following:
- List of common oleander pests
- How to get rid of aphids, caterpillars, etc.
- Ways to prevent pests from eating your oleander
- And more
If you have questions about your oleander infestation, feel free to post them using the form at the very end of this DIY pest control guide. I’ll try to help you out however I can!
Let’s get rid of those oleander pests. Naturally.
Common oleander pests
Oleander attracts a variety of bugs, but some are much more prominent than others.
So what kind of bugs eat oleander?
The most pests you’ll encounter are:
- Milkweed bugs
- Caterpillars (oleander caterpillars, spotted oleander caterpillar, polka dot)
- Spider mites
- Oleander hawk-moths
- Ants (co-habitant of aphid soot)
(Feel free to click on any of the guides above for detailed steps for DIY home remedies.)
Depending on your local climate, the pests you’ll find vary. But this is common sense.
The temperature, competition, food availability, humidity, and the micro ecosystem in your garden will determine the bugs that you find.
This guide goes over the most common insects you’ll find eating your oleander leaves.
Aphids are the primary pest of oleander (or just about any other garden plant in existence).
Oleander aphids can be yellow, black, green, lime, orange, or white.
They show up out of nowhere and suck the precious sap out of the oleander using their piercing mouthparts.
The good thing about aphid infestations is that they only do aesthetic damage for the most part.
Established oleander plants will rarely suffer permanent damage, but younger ones can be vulnerable. Aphid infestations aren’t as scary as they look.
While you may see your oleander swarming with them, the damage is limited to the surface level. If you live in Florida, seeing aphids on your oleander is a regular occurrence.
Regardless, let’s learn about how you can get rid of them.
The true oleander aphid can reproduce without fertilization. This allows them to increase their number of progeny with minimal disturbance.
Also known as the milkweed aphid or sweet pepper (Nerium) aphid, it’s commonly found in warmer temperate zones worldwide.
Identification – What do oleander aphids look like?
Oleander aphids are no different from any other aphid other than how they reproduce (females don’t need males to produce offspring nor do they deposit eggs).
They have bright yellow bodies with black legs, but can also be brown or black.
They originate from the Mediterranean, which is also where the oleander shrub was born.
They’re yellow and can be found in warm regions all over the globe, but their color varies depending on the aphid species. They cast their skins as they molt so you may find visible translucent shedding on the plant.
Infested plants are often disfigured with sticky tar-like soot. Wanted adults migrate to new areas, so you may see new colonies moving in each season.
Oleander aphids are remarkable because there is no male or eggs (if it’s a true oleander aphid).
Females only produce nymphs that molt 5 times which only results in females. North Carolina is common with this pest.
Oleander aphid populations are commonly found in the southern or eastern parts of NC. They prefer warmer zones that are similar to their native origins in the Mediterranean.
If you find eggs or males on your oleander, they’re not real oleander aphids but some other species.
Do oleander aphids damage plants?
These aphids will inject their piercing mouthparts into the oleander shrub.
They suck up the sap from their host plant.
Over time, your oleander will start to wilt, droop, or produce fewer flowers. Aphids are like tiny vampires that suck the nutrients out of the leaves.
A small bunch of them won’t do much damage because they’re so tiny.
But when you don’t take action to kill them, they can quickly wilt your plant.
Your oleander may show the following signs of damage:
- Black sooty mold
- Honeydew deposits
- Visible ants
- Visible aphids
- Inflorescence of leaves
- Damaged or veiny leaves
- Stunted growth
- Reduced flowers
- Eggs on the leaves
- Dark fungi
- Sticky, sweet liquids on the leaves
While the damage is mostly on the surface level, they can also transmit viruses such as:
- Papaya ringspot potyvirus
- Sugarcane mosaic virus
Basically, you don’t want aphids on your oleander.
Signs of oleander aphid damage
The obvious sign of damage is the sticky honeydew substance they deposit.
As aphids feast, they leave behind a sticky, sugary residue that brings in other pests like ants.
Thus, you’ll find aphids feeding on your oleander while ants eat the honeydew. The sooty substance will turn black or brown over time, which can hinder photosynthesis.
This can stunt oleander growth.
Visible aphids on your oleander. They don’t hide. You can see them on the leaves, stalks, or stems. Sometimes on the backside to hide from the sun.
How to get rid of oleander aphids
To get if of oleander aphids, there are multiple paths you can take.
Check out the following techniques and see what works for your situation.
If you have a lot of visible aphids that are easy to access, then grab a bucket!
Fill it with a few spoonfuls of dish soap and a gallon of water. Use a brush or sponge to brush the aphids into the bucket.
Hold it right below the bugs or set it on the soil if you need both hands.
The aphids will be killed after drowning in the DIY solution. This is a quick and easy way to remove a ton of aphids with little effort.
Spray with a hose
A common recommendation you’ll see thrown around is to use a high pressure hose to blast the bugs off your oleander bush. It’s because it works.
Yes, the aphids will climb back onto the stem. Or they may temporarily go into hiding. But if you’re consistent in disturbing their environment, they’ll leave.
Every time you go out to water your oleander, use a hose with an adjustable nozzle to spray them off.
This removes them by the hundreds in just a few minutes. It also helps get rid of the honeydew that may have been set on your oleander leaves.
The thing you need to watch out for is to not damage the petals of your oleander. They’re fragile and will break if you spray them with them.
Watch out for fungal issues too from excess water on the leaves.
You’re supposed to water from the base up, so this may be something to be cautious about before you consider spraying them off.
Ornamental plants are sensitive to most pesticides, so using something like horticultural oil may help reduce aphids.
Water plants thoroughly before spraying and use them in the early morning or late evening so the residue dries up before being exposed to sunlight. Use as directed.
Particular oils can be very effective for aphids when used correctly.
Insecticidal soaps (DIY or commercial)
Use an organic insecticidal soap to help eliminate pests on oleander. Use as directed.
These soaps are often available in pet-safe sprays, so if you have pets or people rummaging around the garden, this alternative may be safer than oils or synthetic sprays.
Some popular insecticidal soap brands you can look for are GardenSafe, Bonide, or SaferBrand.
You can find these products on Amazon. Make sure that the listed insect is on the label or else it may be a waste of money to buy.
Use as directed. Read all warnings before use.
Insecticidal soaps are also generally less damaging to the plant compared to other compounds that are more concentrated.
It’s a good area to start if you’re looking for commercial solutions.
You can also mix your insecticidal soap at home because a lot of basic ingredients can be very good for aphid control.
Here’s a reference video to get your mind jogging:
Neem oil is a concentrated extract from the neem plant.
The oil forms a protective residue that sticks to plant surfaces and prevents aphids from sucking up the sap. It has pros and cons.
On the pro side, it’s a natural DIY remedy for aphids on oleander. It’s cheap and you can even find organic neem. It works well when applied correctly.
On the con side, it can overheat your plant. Since it blocks the leaves from releasing heat, the oleander may suffer from excess heat.
This is why you should only use it at night. It gives the neem time to dry, plus there’s no light. Wash off excess neem with a hose after you apply.
Use a small part of your shrub first before applying it to the entire plant.
While neem is naturally extracted from neem leaves, it still comes with its own warnings if you choose to use it for pest control. Neem is awesome, but must be used in moderation- never overdone.
A little goes a long way with neem oil.
Neem oil is dangerous to some pets, like cats. People may have sensitivities to it as well. Read all warnings. Use as directed.
Neem oil is good for moderate infestations plus has a residual effect so you don’t need to constantly apply it.
Remove infested leaves
Oleander that’s been infested with pest activity should be removed.
Prune larvae infested foliage because it’ll remove aphids, eggs, larvae, honeydew, and ants simultaneously.
There’s no need to keep the foliage as oleander is tough. To instantly kill the aphids hiding in the leaf litter, dip it into soapy water.
Leaves that are wilted, torn, or otherwise damaged should be pruned cleanly from the shrub.
You’d be surprised at how much of the bug population you can instantly vaporize by doing regular pruning.
Besides, it’s good for your oleander. It keeps it clean, tidy, and nice to look at!
Floating row covers can be placed over younger oleander shrubs.
These covers prevent larger insects from getting into the plant but allow it to photosynthesize, be watered, and be exposed to the elements.
Row covers are excellent for larger bugs like caterpillars or aphids if the netting is small enough. If you’re not growing multiple brushes, use regular plant netting to keep bugs out.
Note that if a stray insect gets into the net, it can deposit eggs which render the whole setup useless.
These guys make a tasty snack for many predators out there. Aphids have many natural predators, so it’s a viable method to utilize them to your benefit.
These predators include lady beetles (ladybug), midges, damsel bugs, soldier beetles, blister beetles, lacewings (green or brown), big-eyed bugs, hover flies, parasitoid wasps, rove beetles, syrphid flies, and ladybirds.
These can be purchased online if you don’t have them in your area. Or you can find out which species are native and then research how to bring in more of them.
Natural predators won’t fully get rid of aphids for the most part but can help reduce their population.
Milkweed is a host plant that larvae of the monarch butterfly feed on.
Because of this, sometimes the nomenclature “milkweed bugs” encompasses other pests which leads to confusion.
Milkweed plants have several insects like whiteflies, scales, spider mites, snails, thrips, leaf miners, slugs, aphids, etc.
Many bugs eat milkweed, but the actual milkweed bugs (large and small) are true bugs that feed on milkweed seeds.
So if someone is saying they have milkweed bugs on their oleander, it can be the actual true bug, or it can be any of the insects that eat milkweed. Just wanted to clear up the confusion.
Occasionally, milkweed bugs may be found on oleander plants if their preferred host plant isn’t available.
To get rid of them, you can use the following techniques:
Removing by hand
Use protective garden gear to manually remove the milkweed bugs by hand. Pick them off and then dunk them into soap water.
This is the most basic and straightforward way you can get rid of them naturally.
While it does take some time, it can be effective for smaller milkweed infestations on younger oleander plants.
Soapy water spray
Milkweed bugs can be controlled by manually removing them. Mix a bucket of soapy water, then pour the solution into a spray bottle.
Spray the milkweed bugs directly to kill them. Since these bugs are relatively large and easy to spot, removing them by hand is possible.
The milkweed bugs will fall off the oleander. Get something to catch them in (such as the original bucket of soapy water). Repeat daily until the milkweed bugs are gone.
Use commercial insecticides
There are commercial insecticides you can use to quickly eliminate milkweed bugs.
Opt for something organic or “green” rather than synthetic. Use as directed. This should only be used if the other methods don’t work.
Some essential oils may help repel milkweed bugs. Buy a bottle of pure, organic essential oil extract and then dilute it with water.
Depending on the concentration, the amount of water you need varies. Read the bottle for directions.
Spray on your oleander in a test spot first, then wait 2 days to see if your plant reacts to it. If not, then apply liberally to the entire shrub.
Essential oils are a quick and natural way to deter pests without using dangerous synthetic compounds.
Some excellent oils you can try are:
Some plants or people can be sensitive to essential oils, so read the labels/warnings before use.
Removing infested leaves with visible milkweed bugs is a good idea.
This foliage is likely smeared with eggs or nymphs feeding on it, so prune them off. You can quickly remove large numbers of bugs from your oleander by doing this.
Ugly foliage that’s been even remotely damaged by bugs should be cut from your oleander. Don’t risk it. There can be eggs or nymphs hiding within the foliage hidden from view.
When dealing with pests, it’s always ideal to take the safe root and prune it back.
Check out this guide for milkweed bug control.
The oleander caterpillar is a bright orange caterpillar with numerous black hairs on its body. In Florida, Georgia, and other coastal regions, the oleander caterpillar is extremely common.
Scientifically known as Syntomeida epilais Walker, this bug is hungry for leaves and leaves behind damaged foliage.
Oleander only has one caterpillar that’s a major concern, and this is it.
There’s a very similar caterpillar to the oleander caterpillar called the spotted oleander caterpillar (E. pugione). Its distribution is limited to the Keys or Southern FL.
Oleander caterpillars are poisonous to humans!
The oleander caterpillar is poisonous to humans. It can cause adverse reactions like itchy skin or rashes.
If you notice that its body is completely orange with those piercing black spikes, it’s a sign that you shouldn’t touch it!
You should never handle it directly without proper protective gear. If you don’t think you can confidently handle them, consider hiring professionals.
What does the oleander caterpillar turn into?
The oleander caterpillar will become a dark blue wasp moth. It has white polka dots on its wings and body with a long antenna.
These moths have distinctive blue shades with a red rear end. The head is dark blue with black antennae that are yellow.
It’s native to the Caribbean, but it’s found all over the world in coastal regions.
Oleander caterpillar damage
You really can’t go wrong with the telltale signs of their infestation, so here’s what to look for.
Infestation by the oleander caterpillar is very easy to recognize.
The young larvae will chew on the oleander shoots. They’ll turn yellow or brown over time. Leaves will become veiny because they eat everything but the leaf veins.
The major/minor veins aren’t favorable to them.
Look under the leaves. You may see them feeding on the bottom in a small cluster. Oleander caterpillars feed in groups, so it makes it easy to wipe out many of them at once.
Since they feed in small groups rather than individually, you can remove the leaf that they’re hiding on and then dunk it into soapy water.
A few leaves equal a few dozen caterpillars.
Defoliation of the oleander leaves is the major sign of caterpillar larvae. Your oleander leaves will become skeletonized, bare, yellow, and chewed with holes or jagged edges.
Oleander is resilient when established. Complete defoliation won’t kill your shrub. But repeated infestation will.
Neem oil can be applied to help prevent caterpillar damage.
Use organic or pure neem oil and use it only when the sun isn’t out. Read all labels and use as directed.
Test on a small portion of your oleander first. Neem oil must be diluted and applied evenly on the foliage. Excess oil must be washed off.
Neem can be dangerous for pets and sensitive individuals, so use with caution. See the section above for more info on neem.
Use natural predators
Birds are excellent predators of caterpillars in general.
They can spot them and pick them off your shrub with pinpoint accuracy.
The problem is that oleander caterpillars feed on poisonous oleander leaves. Birds therefore can’t eat them. The same goes for other small mammals.
While oleander caterpillars are abundant, most species will completely ignore them because of their poisonous diet.
Therefore, we need to look to other species to help us eliminate these pests.
Some natural predators that CAN eat oleander caterpillars include the following:
- Stink bugs
- Fire ants
- Tachinid flies
- Tachinid wasps
You’ll need to do some reading to find out which of these predators are in your area natively (as in they’re already found in your garden, not introduced).
Then find out how to bring in more of them. Stink bugs will eat the larvae. Tachinid flies will wipe out larvae as well.
Most of these predators will only feed on the larvae of oleander caterpillars, so they don’t work on large caterpillars.
Not everyone will have access to these insects, so it may not be an option for you.
Prune infested foliage
Removing the larvae in large numbers is the easiest way to bring down the extent of their damage quickly. Remember to use protective equipment because oleander and caterpillars are both poisonous!
It’s cost-effective, environmentally friendly, and doesn’t take any synthetic pesticides introduced to your yard. This is important if you’re growing veggies or fruits or just have people/pets.
Get a bucket and fill it with soapy water. Use a few tablespoons of dish detergent in a few gallons of water. The ratio doesn’t matter. It just needs to form suds when you stir it.
Put on some gardening gloves and wear protective gear. Remember that oleander caterpillars are poisonous, and so is the plant itself.
You do NOT want to come into direct or indirect contact with the plant.
Place the bucket under the foliage. Then go caterpillar hunting!
Use a pair of pruners to snip off foliage where you find them hiding on the underside. Snip it off cleanly on the joint. Then toss the entire leaf into the water. This will kill the caterpillars.
Repeat for the entire plant, once per week.
The dead caterpillars should be treated as hazardous. Dispose of it properly.
Keep people/pets away from it. Wash your hands immediately when handling anything oleander related.
Consider Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)
This is a biological microbial that’s used as an organic insecticide. It kills lepidopteran larvae when used properly without harming beneficial insects.
It’s sold under many trade names and you can pick up a vial of it online or at your local nursery. Use as directed.
Bt will kill the larvae, but not the adults. It works by disrupting the caterpillar’s normal birthing cycle.
By killing the larvae, there will be no adults to mate with and lay more eggs. Bt wipes out future generations, so you can’t expect instant results.
While Bt is powerful for caterpillars, you shouldn’t use it if it’s not necessary. There are easier means that don’t require you to introduce foreign nematodes into your soil.
But if you’ve tried everything to get rid of these darn caterpillars and nothing works, then Bt is worth trying before you call in the pros.
- Key Plant, Key Pests: Oleander (Nerium oleander) – UFL
- Oleander Leaf Scorch Management Guidelines – UC IPM
- Managing Pests in Gardens: Trees and Shrubs: Oleander – UC IPM
Is your oleander now pest free?
Oleander is a resilient shrub that’s hardy to heat, pests, and even salinity in the soil. The only thing it’s really afraid of is the cold.
Thankfully, most pest problems are solved with some patience and persistence.
Oleander can take a beating before it suffers from pest damage, so you get plenty of room for trial and error to figure out how to get rid of them.
If you have specific questions about your oleander bug problem, please use the form below to post a comment.
Or if you’ve got tips to share with other readers, do likewise! Please let me know your feedback on this guide too.
Currently an active researcher in the pest control industry for the past 8 years- with a focus on using natural and organic methods to eliminate pest problems.
I share handy DIY pest techniques I come across here to help out others (and possibly save them from a mental breakdown).
Fight nature with nature.