Root Aphids or Soil Mites – Which One Do You Have?

We know the feeling when you discover bugs in your plants and soil. There is always that initial dread that you may have an infestation on your hands. What are these tiny bugs? Are they root aphids or soil mites – how do you tell the difference?

Before you reach for the pesticide, it might not be as bad as you initially feared. Not all bugs are destructive. Some are beneficial insects – and it is crucial to understand how to identify the good ones (soil mites) from the harmful bugs (root aphids).

Root Aphids or Soil Mites

In this article, you can expect to learn:

  • how to tell the difference between root aphids and soil mites (using a comparison table)
  • the key differences in behavior, where they reside and damage caused, and
  • next steps for removal (or maintenance) of the bugs.

Root Aphids vs. Soil Mites Comparison Table

For those of you who want to quickly identify the bugs you have, we’ve created a comparison table that you can reference.

For those that want to learn a bit more about these unique bugs, we do a closer exploration of each bug in the sections following the table.

DescriptionRoot AphidSoil Mite
ColorLight brown but can appear white against the soil and roots.Varying in color
Size0.5 – 2.0 mm0.5 – 1 mm
FeaturesRounded body with six legs and long thin antennae protruding from the head Soil mites white and brown bodies are unsegmented and oval shaped 
LocationThey are concentrated around the roots and at the base of the stem. Moving about in the soil. Not necessarily on the plant or roots.  
Damage / Plant SymptomsStunted plant growth and continual problems with disease due to a weakened state from aphids feeding on roots.  No damage or symptoms. Soil Mites help break down the soil and release minerals for the plants to absorb. 
Plant ImpactRoot Aphids are harmful garden pests who feed on the sap of your plants, stealing essential nutrients.  Belong to a group of beneficial soil fauna that helps to process organic materials in the soil. 

What is the Difference Between Soil Mites and Root Aphids?

As gardeners, the principal reason we want to identify which bug is who is to determine whether we need to exterminate or keep them.

Soil Mites = GOOD, Root Aphids = BAD

Soil mites act like a natural clean-up crew that predates the rotting organic materials in the soil, such as vegetation, fungi, and microfauna.

While root aphids feed on the live parts of your plant, such as the roots, stem, and leaves.

We know which one we’d prefer in our soil – what about you?

Now let’s get into distinguishing the differences between the two.

Root Aphids or Soil Mites

Root Aphids – A Closer Look

Root aphids are a garden pest from the Phylloxera family, which is a close relative of aphids you commonly see on rose bushes.

However, root aphids aren’t just a threat to outdoor plants. They are also increasingly becoming a problem for indoor plant owners in their potted plants.

Their body shape and features are similar to that of their above-ground cousins, the green fly aphid (aphidoidea). However, since they move and live underground, they are generally smaller and lighter in color.

They have rotund oval-shaped bodies with size thin legs (three on each side). They also have two long antennae protruding out from their small head. At the other end, they have a conical tail that is a distinguishing feature.

How Do I Know if I have Root Aphids?

Root aphids congregate around the root system of your plants. Which means discovering them by chance is difficult without performing a thorough root ball inspection. Let’s be honest – that only hands once in a blue moon.

They can be found loitering around the base of your plant stem. However, if you see this, you will likely have a more significant problem beneath the surface.

If you see ants in the soil around your plant, it could be an indication that you have root aphids. Ants have a symbiotic relationship with aphids. Ants harvest and feed on the honeydew produced by the root aphids as they drink the sap. In return, the ants protect the aphids from predators and care for them – almost like a sheep herder.

root aphid damage
credit: reddit

What Does Root Aphid Damage Look Like?

Spotting root aphids amongst your roots is impractical, so the next best thing you can do is monitor your plant for symptoms. Here are a few signs that your plant may have root aphids:

  1. Stunted growth – as the root aphids feed on your plants’ sap, it creates a nutrient-deficiency. Sadly, a lack of nutrients leads to limited, or even deformities, in your plants growth.
  2. Weak & Susceptible – if your plant regularly experiences issues with disease or pests, it could result from a more significant (unseen) problem, like root aphids. Large infestations of root aphids weaken their hosts with their constant feeding. As a result, the fragile plants cannot defend against disease or pests and succumb to them.
  3. Waxy Substances in the Soil – a dead giveaway that root aphids are hiding in your plants’ root system is a waxy, white residue that they leave behind. It is similar to the substance that mealybugs leave on foliage and crevices on your plants, only in the soil and roots.

How Do Root Aphids Behave?

Root aphids will root around (excuse the pun) your plant’s root system and only make their way up the stem when the colony size increases. Like their cousins, they will cling to the roots, crawling along them until their can find a free spot to feed.

They won’t be crawling freely in the soil unless they have fallen from the plant’s stem. They are unlikely to jump or bounce around (like springtails), preferring to crawl.

When the plant has been sucked dry and begins to die, or the root aphid colony has grown too big, the adult aphids can develop wings (like fungus gnats) to move to their next target. These winged aphids will start a new colony at a new location.

Soil Mites – A Closer Look

Although minor and very similar looking, soil mites are not insects. They are invertebrates more closely related to the ticks and spider family, rather than the insect genre.

And unlike the root aphid, there is not just one, but many species of soil mites. In fact, ‘soil mites’ are more of a general term for a collection of bugs that reside in the soil.

Nevertheless, they are tiny bugs that crawl around the soil, scavenging for organic materials and dead items to feed on.

They have rigid oval-shaped bodies that vary in color from white to brown. Their shells are not segmented like isopods, forming one piece like a turtle shell.

Finally, one of the distinguishing factors is that soil mites have eight legs instead of six legs, like root aphids.

soil mites in potting mix
credit: reddit

How Do I Know if I have Soil Mites?

Soil mites are tiny creatures that are hard to see with the naked eye. You would likely require a magnifying glass to spot them in your soil.

Nevertheless, if you look close enough (like face an inch away from the soil) and are patient, you may see small dots moving in and around your soil surface when you disturb it with your finger.

Do Soil Mites Damage Your Plants?

ANSWER: NO – soil mites do not damage your plants. In fact, they are beneficial for your plants and soil. As we mentioned earlier, soil mites are the beneficial fauna in your soil that breaks rotting matter down and turn it into nutrients that your plants can use to grow. We like to think of them as the clean-up crew heroes!

Unlike root aphids, which predate on your plants, soil mites are helpful and are sometimes encouraged by some gardeners.

Should I Leave Soil Mites in the Soil?

Absolutely yes – like we just discussed, soil mites are beneficial for your soil. They help to process the degrading materials in your soil and allow to convert them into valuable minerals.

Like worm castings, their waste is rich and full of nutrients, like calcium that roots require for their processes.

How Do Soil Mites Behave?

As you may suspect, mites don’t move very quickly. Unlike other insects that can jump away when threatened, a soil mite’s only defense is its tiny size and ability to dig into the soil.

In contrast to their close relatives, the tick, soil mites will not bite or attack humans. So handling potting mix that contains soil mites is no threat. However, some reports have linked them to carrying pathogens and parasites.

How To Get Rid Of Root Aphids

We already established that you should leave soil mites in the soil (if you can see them!). But when it comes to root aphids, immediate action should be made in removing them from your plant.

Here are a few options for exterminating root aphids:

  • Beneficial Nematodes – are microscopic roundworms (predatory nematodes) that live in the soil. They naturally feed on pests in the soil and are an excellent form of control. If the thought of roundworms wriggling in your soil is off-putting, we have good news. You cannot see the nematodes, which are harmless to people and pets. You can find beneficial nematode products online (like Amazon) or at your local nursery. Each has instructions for applying to indoor plants, and we recommend following their guidelines.
  • Insecticidal Soaps – are a good option for immediate soaking of the infested soil. Try a soil drench using neem oil or a plant-derived insecticide/pesticide. We recommend this method when you have caught the root aphid infestation early and your plant is not already weakened. Another possibility is using spinosad-containing insecticides or Beauveria, which contain spores that will attack the roots of aphids.

If you choose the insecticidal soap option, apply another round a few weeks after the initial application. This will ensure any eggs or missed aphids are killed and not allowed to repopulate.

Moreover, if you decide to apply neem oil directly to your plants, you’ll need to re-apply it every two weeks during their growing seasons.

Root Aphids or Soil Mites – Closing Comments

Identifying root aphids from soil mites is easy once you know what features and behavior to look for. Using our comparison table will help you to quickly and confidently recognize one from the other.

Soil mites are beneficial fauna in the soil and help to break down any rotting material. Therefore, leaving them alone is the general rule of thumb.

On the other hand, root aphids are detrimental to your plant’s health and should be removed. Treating root aphids is tricky. However, early detection makes it much easier to deal with. Plus, it gives your plant a better opportunity for survival.