by Pamela Walker
And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. Genesis,1:20 KJV
One bug that can really get under the skin of even the most zealous gardening environmentalist is the dreaded aphid. Before you can say Chrysantheumum cinerariifolium, these nature lovers are getting out their vacuum cleaners, their concoctions of garlic, soap, water and hot peppers, their jumbo-sized boxes of ladybugs, their high-pressure washers—anything, indeed—with which to annihilate the pesky blighters.
While it is true that the tiny creatures can suck the life out of a rose or a greenhouse-load of peppers in a matter of days, what is also true is they are incredibly interesting. A moment or two’s reflection should be taken before extirpating countless generations with a garden hose or blow torch.
Did you know, for example, that if one were to dissect a female of the species (another sure-fired way to ensure the last suck she’ll take is an inhalation of air), you may be able to see another female, like a Russian doll, inside her beautiful green body? Yes, aphids give birth, not to eggs, but to live offspring, just like whales, elephants and humans. If that alone isn’t enough to stop the aphicide, there is more—much more—to this lowly creature that may make you press pause on your pathological derision.
Parthenogenesis in biblical proportions
Aphids are in such a hurry to make babies that sometimes, when it’s summertime and there’s plenty of sucking to do, they don’t even bother with the whole business of finding a mate, courting, procreating, obligatory après-cigarette, etc. They simply give birth without the use of a male or his sperm. Without Y-chromosomes, the offspring are always female, but who doesn’t love little girls, especially when they, too, can do this parthenogenesis trick to reproduce in numbers that are practically biblical in proportion?
This is not the only bar trick that aphids have up their proverbial sleeves. Have you ever seen an aphid with wings? Probably not, because you’re too busy squishing the bejesus out of them. But if you do look, you may notice that some are winged and some are not. This is because they can decide—or rather their proteins decide—whether they need wings or not. If it’s getting too crowded in one greenhouse and they think it prudent to set up shop elsewhere, aphids can produce offspring with wings. Although they may not win any awards for aerial acrobatics, they can harness an afternoon breeze to land on another patch of succulent vegetables, and before you know it, they’ve got a franchise up and running.
When I was a small child—before the time of Sputnik, Luna, and Apollo missions—little green men, I was told, lived on our cheese-made moon. In my imagination, the little green men – who were much smaller than the gullible Gulliver’s Lilliputians – kept aphids as pets and took them for walks using little tiny leashes. I would watch them for hours and imagine how small their food bowls and collars must be.
Would you like some honeydew?
Being quite scatological (a word I learned while taking my BA), Jonathan Swift would have been fascinated to know that aphids drink a kind of Milk of Paradise and they poo a kind of honeydew. Ants, having quite the sweet tooth, unabashedly lick up all the poo the aphids produce and encourage them to make more by herding them to more succulent spots. Ants have also been known to protect their herds of aphids by caring for them in their ant-homes during the winter and bringing them out to graze again in the spring, like any good farmer.
How I wish I could tell Swift that aphids have tailpipes—tubular structures on their hind ends that entomologists call siphunculi—out of which they can spew a sticky substance, either to gum up the mouth of a pursuing predator or to protect their bodies from being made into a host home by a parasitoid for its own offspring.
Right about now you are probably thinking that this is the stuff of science-fiction, but I assure you it is all true. I asked my sister to verify it, and though she’s a geneticist and not an entomologist, she knew most of what I said and was unsurprised at the rest. “Not enough work has been done on the aphid,” she said. “I should have gotten some of my students to research them.”
What did the aphid do in the bar-room brawl?
Research them they should! How else are we supposed to learn how aphids defend themselves against those that consider them lunch? So far scientists have learned that they are quite good at bar-room brawls. Being expert kickboxers, they can pummel their pursuers with their long legs or do the stop-drop-and-roll trick and make a fast get-away. They’ve been seen stabbing their enemies in the egg cartons, killing the next generation of insects in vitro. Some aphids develop spines so that their enemies find them difficult to chew on. Some are born soldiers and never grow past the nymph stage. Like female eunuchs, these particular aphids have a sole purpose in life: to protect the oikos, which they do to their death.
With a list of enemies that include ladybugs, lacewings, parasitic wasps, hoverflies and damsel bugs, not to mention the aforementioned (so-called) gardening environmentalists, I do believe we should study these unbelievable bugs before we bash or blast them into oblivion. Aphids may not be welcomed as pests in our garden, but they do, like all creatures great and small, deserve our admiration.
How to detect an infestation
If you see a sticky substance—the honeydew—on the leaves of your plant, look closely forgreen, pink, or even black dots. Chances are these are aphids. The leaves of the plant may have become misshapen, crinkly, or yellow from the sap being sucked out of them. Another possibility is that the honeydew may have attracted dust from molds. Still another possibility is that the plant has developed a canker sore as a result of all the aphid destruction.
What to Do
After you’ve appreciated your aphids, you can usually wash them off with the spray attachment on a garden hose. Failing that, squish them or sprinkle flour on top of them. The flour will give them indigestion, and they’ll move along. Other methods include wiping them off with a mixture of dish soap and water, or using a spray of insecticidal soap. As a last resort, diatomaceous earth (DE) can be sprinkled on the plant, but don’t do this if the plant is flowering as it will be harmful to beneficial pollinators as well.
Plant something nearby that aphids don’t like. Aphids hate catnip, garlic and chives. Nasturtiums and mustards can be planted alongside to save broccoli, roses, lettuces, or peas. Check your trap plants often, and get rid of any aphids promptly before they attack the plants you want to save.
You can attract ladybugs, parasitic wasps, lacewings, or other beneficial bugs to your gardens by planting marigolds, alyssum, dill, mint, fennel, Echinacea, calendula and buckwheat.