Fungus Gnats: Tiny Flies Around Your Houseplants

With winter’s arrival, the caseload at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab is low, although ID requests continue to trickle in. Recently, dark-winged fungus gnats (Family Sciaridae) are one of the commonest insects I’ve seen at the lab. These tiny (1/16 – 1/8 inch long), dark-colored flies are almost always associated with houseplants.

Adult fungus gnat showing the distinctive, curved “Y” fork in the wings.  Photo Credit: B. Schoenmakers, via Wikipedia.

Despite their small size, adult fungus gnats can readily be identified by their wing venation. Using a bit of magnification, the translucent wings of these insects possess an oblong, rounded “Y” towards the tips of the wings. While the delicate adults gnats may catch our attention, the larvae are at the root of the problem. The slender, worm-like larvae possess a dark head capsule and live in moist environments.

The connection with houseplants has to do with the feeding habits of the larvae. Fungus gnat larvae generally aren’t plant pests, but scavenge on fungal spores. If the soil of a houseplant is kept too moist, it can create ideal conditions for them. An abundance of fallen decaying plant materials (leaves, etc.) on the soil surface can also contribute. Some of the commonest sources of fungus gnats (and other houseplant pests) are “outdoor” plants which were brought indoors in the fall.

Adult fungus gnats may be a nuisance, but are harmless and short-lived. They will often be observed near potted houseplants (where females can lay eggs) or at nearby windows. When it comes to fungus gnat problems, the following approaches can be helpful:

Sticky card traps can be a useful non-chemical approach for monitoring fungus gnat populations over time and capturing adults. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Entomology.

1) Dry out the Soil: Fungus gnat larvae thrive in damp soil or potting mix. Cutting back on waterings is often the single most important step in dealing with fungus gnats and the mere presence of these gnats is often an indicator of overwatering. Allowing the soil to dry out between waterings decreases survival of the larvae. For succulents and other popular plants that are tolerant of dry conditions, cutting back on waterings can often correct a fungus gnat issue over time without any additional steps.

2) Sticky Card Traps: These traps look like bright yellow index cards, but are covered with a sticky adhesive. When purchased at local hardware stores, garden centers, or online, they usually include small stakes to help place these cards into pots. The adult fungus gnats are attracted to the color of the traps and can become stuck in the adhesive. Used alone, these traps will not eliminate fungus gnats. However, these traps are a non-chemical way to capture adults and can help when used in combination with other approaches. If you have significant fungus gnat numbers, swapping out sticky cards on a regular basis can help monitor for trends over time.

3) Soil Monitoring: If you have lots of houseplants, determining which plant(s) is/are harboring the larvae can be a challenge. One helpful approach is to place slices of potato on the soil surface of potted plants. If larvae are present in a given pot, some may come to the surface to feed on the readily-available starches of the potato. Checking the potato slices for the presence of the dark-headed larvae can help determine where to focus your attention.

4) Cultural Practices: If fungus gnats are really bad, it can sometimes make sense to discard a problematic plant to prevent it from serving as a continual source of fungus gnats. Alternatively, a favorite plant could be washed to bare roots and re-potted in fresh potting mix. When obtaining new plants, it can be helpful to isolate and monitor new plants for fungus gnat or other insect activity before placement amongst other houseplants.

5) Soil Treatments: With severe or persistent infestations of fungus gnats or in cases where watering can’t be reduced, treating the soil is an option to directly target the larvae. The commonest option is to use a product labelled for use on houseplants containing Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti). These products are based on a naturally-occurring bacteria that is toxic to fly larvae. Such products can be applied as a liquid drench (e.g., Gnatrol) or as granules (e.g., Mosquito Bits) to the soil surface and watered in. Such products won’t eliminate fungus gnats overnight, but can be effective over the course of several weeks.

6) Sprays for Adult Fungus Gnats: Spraying for adult fungus gnats with is not generally effective or recommended.  Targeting the adults will only provide temporary relief and it is much more effective in the long-run to target the larvae at the heart of the problem.