Thousands of bugs on your Christmas tree? UF experts say no

By Christie Zizo, Digital Media Producer
Last Updated: Thursday, November 30, 2017, 12:15 PM EST

Your Christmas tree may have bugs in it – but reports that your tree is a Trojan horse for thousands of creepy crawlies to invade your home is over-exaggerated, according to University of Florida experts.

  • UF experts: Most Christmas trees are shipped in from other states, pre-treated
  • Live Florida trees also protected from pests
  • There are bigger concerns about protecting trees from fire

Recent reports, mostly linked to a pest management company, said Christmas trees can contain up to 25,000 bugs.

“You are not going to have thousands of bugs in your Christmas trees,” said Dr. Adam Dale, assistant professor for entomology (the study of bugs) at University of Florida. “Stories like that are way overblown.”

“In over nine years of experience with [the UF Agricultural] Extension, I have never had a client inquiry or problem brought to my attention regarding a serious problem, or even a minor problem, related to insects on Christmas trees,” said Susan Haddock, an agent in pest management for the UF Agricultural Extension.

Some of the bugs that are commonly seen in Christmas trees include:

  • Aphids, particularly the Cinara aphid, which can look like a tick; 
  • Bagworms, a caterpillar that feeds on plant debris and makes a case around their bodies; 
  • Spider mites, which can feed on the leaves and kill them; 
  • Praying mantids, which lay their egg masses in the trees. Depending on the size of that mass, it could hold hundreds of baby mantids.

Spiders may also be found. But none of them are dangerous, Dale said – they just might freak out someone who isn’t into bugs.

Both Dale and Haddock agree that many of the trees you find in Florida Christmas tree tents are shipped in from out of state.

“Most trees are grown in Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Washington, New York and Virginia,” Haddock said.  

 “It’s a multi-million dollar industry, shipping trees into Florida,” Dale said. “Those trees are going to be treated to take care of pests.”

Even live Florida trees found on tree farms are well protected from pests, Dale said. He recently visited some of those tree farms, where visitors can cut down their own tree.

“I went to some of the biggest Christmas tree farms in Florida,” Dale said. “There’s just not a ton of insect pressure on the Florida-grown Christmas trees.”

9 ways to keep bugs off your Christmass tree

That being said, nothing is ever 100 percent certain. Both Haddock and Dale suggest these steps to take to make sure you do not bring an unwanted visitor to your home for Christmas.

  1. Inspect the tree thoroughly. Look at the leaves, the branches, check for insects, egg masses and cocoons. Even bird’s nests.
  2. Shake the tree vigorously. Dale believes most reputable tree sellers and tree farms will have what’s called a tree shaker. The purpose of the shaker is to shake out any dead leaves or plant material. But it will also dislodge insects as well. If you see any egg masses or cocoons, you can pick those off the tree.

    Haddock also says shaking the tree will tell you if it is a good one to get no matter what. “If a lot of needles fall off the tree, that is a good indication that the tree is too dry and one should look for another tree anyway,” Haddock said.
  3. Once you get the tree home, you can also vacuum it, carefully. Use the hose and the narrow attachment and run it along the branches. It will not only get out any dead plant material, but it will also take care of any noticeable insects.
  4. If you bring the tree home and find bugs, DO NOT spray it with a bug spray. The sprays are flammable. It’s not a good idea.
  5. Dale suggests taking the tree outside and use a spray of mineral soap or mineral-based oil, and water, to spray the tree. For aphids, you can even try soapy water.
  6. If you do find aphids on the tree, try not to push them off. The red and purple bugs secrete a sticky liquid. They also will squirt red or purple juice that can stain fabrics.
  7. Haddock says not to use Neem oil or diatomaceous earth, which are particularly hazardous for people and animals. Neem may leave a residue on the tree that can be absorbed through the skin when you touch the tree to decorate it. DE can irritate the nasal passages if inhaled.
  8. If you find any bugs around the tree, be sure to vacuum them up.
  9. If all else fails, you should be able to go back to the place where you bought the tree and switch it out for one with less of a pest problem.

So if you are getting a live tree this year, don’t worry about the bug reports.

Instead, focus on making sure to properly maintain your Christmas tree, making sure it has plenty of water so it doesn’t dry out, and keeping it away from heat sources.

Haddock says an average of 210 home fires start with the Christmas tree every year. Learn more about Christmas tree safety (.PDF).