Aphids on Plants | Identify Aphids
Are There Aphids on Your Plants?
Do you have aphids on your garden plants? Don't let those little insects multiply out of control and suck all of the life out of your precious plants. Aphids look like like tiny green grasshoppers (though some are black). They may be small, but aphids can quickly overwhelm a plant's defenses, leaving it drooping and wilted. In some cases aphids can kill a plant completely. They're a little like piranhas -- a little nip each from swarms of individuals, adding up to a devastating attack. So whether or not you do have aphids on the plants in your garden, you still need to be on your toes. Don't let the tiny green bug-piranhas deprive you of a healthy harvest!
Are There Aphid On Your Plants? To Tell, You Need to Know What Aphids Look Like
What do aphids look like? Aphids are little green or black insects with six spindly legs and, in some cases, wings. Aphids don't have much in the way of decoration, though some are kind of cool in their smooth, streamlined way. So no, aphids are not much to look at. But everything else about aphids is pretty amazing. For example: aphids are capable of giving birth to live young, mammal style. Weird enough? No? Okay, then what if I told you those live-birth babies are actually clones of the mother, produced without males or mating? Yeah. Thought so. That got your attention. Read on!
Aphid or Cloverfield Monster?
Aphid! This electron-scanning microscope image of your average aphid give you a better idea of how weird these little guys are. Up close, they can even be scary -- some species have "soldier aphids," specialized forms with grabby legs and sharp, pointy mouthparts for attacking invaders (more on that later!). Like all insects, aphids have three body parts -- head, thorax, and abdomen -- and six legs. And like all insects, they're pretty scary if you get up close enough.
By Louisa Howard - Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Aphid or Sea Cow?
Aphid! this monster is of course really a tiny little aphid, likely a female, given the big fatness of its body. Get up close enough like this and you can see how a predatory insect might see this animal as a big juicy meal.
Aphid Identification -- The Old-Fashioned Way - My Grandaddy Drew This!
Okay, I had to throw this in here. I was searching Wikimedia Commons for images for this lens, and came across this -- it's a page from a field guide the USDA put out in the 1950s to help farmers identify the bugs attacking their crops. They hired artists to produce exacting images that would be as good as photographs, so those artists had to be really good, really special. Here's the punch-line: This painting was done by my grandfather. His name was Arthur Cushman and he worked on several of these publications. His work belongs to the government and are now all public domain (hence my ability to use it here - ironic, no?), and are really hard to find in general. I almost dropped my laptop when I saw this beautiful drawing. His work is special and I take after him -- I draw insects too, though not nearly as well as he did.
This image or file is a work of a United States Department of Agriculture employee, taken or made during the course of an employee's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.
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Watch Aphids Give "Birth" to Live "Babies"! - Send in the Clones...
That's right, this is a video of the "summer brood" of parthenogenetically produced live aphid babies, conceived without males or mating -- clones of the mother's genetic code. Sounds like science fiction -- isn't. It's reality. Really weird reality.
How Many Aphids? A Lot.
Here's a quick video of aphids on plants, reproducing on a goldenrod stem. Remember your junior high math skills? Well, this is exponential growth. Unchecked, aphids would reproduce with such success that we humans would have to find another planet.
Aphids on Plants -- This is The "Temporary" Winged Form
Oh, didn't I mention that some aphids randomly grow wings? That's right, some aphids develop big floppy wings. Just for lack of anything better to do. OR as a wickedly brilliant method of dispersing their colonies and insuring a varied gene pool.
By Scott Bauer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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Aphid and Ants -- A Love Story
If you are unfortunate enough to have aphids, you can at least spend a fascinating few minutes watching them. And if you do, you're going to see ants running around among the little bugs. What are those ants doing? For a long time people just assumed that the ants were congregating for a free meal; they were gobbling up the hapless aphids, whose only defense appeared to be huge numbers and a general willingness to be eaten alive.
As usual, though, Nature was way ahead of the humans. Those ants weren't eating the aphids, some genius finally realized -- they were tending them.
Milk Aphid Blues...
Probably about as close as you want to get to this tender moment -- as the sun sets behind lovely violet clouds, an ant milks one of its aphid "herd" for a tasty drop of honeydew. Whoever named it honeydew had a pretty active imagination, or was hitting the old honeydew himself -- it's really just a little bit of sugar water and a few random compounds that ants just go nuts for. Over millions of years, the two species have developed what scientists call a "symbiotic relationship." So instead of gobbling up the tender aphid with its sharp jaws, the ant has been bought off, basically, by the aphid's evolved ability to give the ant something worth keeping it alive for. Just like a farmer milks his cows, really.
Just a Couple of Old Milk Farmers Tending the Herd...
Photograph taken in The Hague by Jens Buurgaard Nielsen
Who Eats Aphids? Ladybugs!
Let's talk about controlling aphids on plants, since that's probably why you're here. How do you get rid of aphids once they show up? Well, one answer is this: ladybugs. Those pretty little red and black-spotted beetles are an aphid's worst nightmare. Not only do the adults walk around looking for aphids to munch on, but the larvae are even bigger devourers of all things aphid.
Ladybug larvae, by the way, are those tiny gila-monster lizard things that show up on your plants all summer. They are a lot more ferocious than they look: they sport a big pair of jaws, three pairs of claws, and a belly capable of accommodating dozens of yummy, gummy aphids. Yes, you want them on your side!
Lots of agricultural sites and garden shops offer ladybug cultures for controlling aphids. This is known as a biological control method, and it takes two of Mother Nature's most successful creatures and pits them against each other in a life-and-death struggle. Fun to watch, actually, as those lady bug lizard-larvae go to town on a herd of unsuspecting little aphids.
By Scott Bauer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A pretty cool shot of a ladybug beetle larva. These guys are death on aphids -- none of that lovey-dovey milking stuff, which they leave to the ants. Suckers! Ladybird beetles just walk up to the aphids, say "Hi," and eat them. If you have an aphid problem, you can buy a bunch of ladybug eggs, which will hatch into voracious larvae.
Ladybug Larva Eating Aphid
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Another Big Aphid Killer -- The Lacewing - A Beautiful Killer
This is an adult lacewing, a relative of the ant lion and other insects who are fragile and beautiful as adults, ugly and voracious as larvae. The lacewing nymph is a spiny, nasty, aphid-eating machine. You can buy lacewing eggs and place them on your infested plants -- when the larvae hatch out, the aphids won't know what hit them.
This Wasp is Laying Eggs INSIDE an Aphid. - Can't Be Good for the Aphid. And... It Isn't
This is a parasitic wasp that has a symbiotic relationship with aphids that isn't quite as cozy as the old farmer-ant thing: this wasp injects live eggs into the fatty tissue of the aphid, where the wasp larva (a "maggot") hatches out and begins eating the aphid from the inside out while it's still alive. As the maggot grows, the aphid slowly wastes away, until it dies. then the maggot pupates, turns into a live wasp, chews its way out of the dead aphid, and flies away to look for another aphid to inject with its baby maggots. Ain't life grand?
Parasitic Wasp Lays Eggs on Aphids
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Control of Aphids -- Homemade Solutions
Let's Get Soapy!
Here's pretty good "recipe" for anti-bug soap. It's good for nearly anything that's bugging your plants, aphid or otherwise.
2 cups oil, either vegetable or mineral oil
4 cups warm water
4 teaspoons dish soap
This "recipe" acts to suffocate the aphids by blocking their spiricals, the openings along the sides of the their bodies through which they breathe. Try to avoid spraying in direct sunlight, since the little droplets can act as magnifying glasses and burn little holes in the plant. You will need to repeat this process for several days or weeks to takes care of immature forms and new incursions.
Some gardeners swear by growing plants to lure aphids away from your prize flowers and other plants. Nasturtiums, asters, mums, cosmos, hollyhocks, larkspur, tuberous begonias, verbena, dahlias, and zinnias are very attractive to aphids and are especially good for organic control of aphids. Grow these plants away from the plants you wish to keep aphids off, since they draw aphids away from the plants you wish to keep aphid-free.
The Hose Effect:
Simply blast your plants with a direct stream from the garden hose. Be careful not to hurt the plants, but this will temporarily knock the aphids off the plant. Do it often enough, and you may break the back of your aphid infestation.
Commercial Control of Aphids
This is poison, and if you use it on your aphids you have to get ready for poison to spread around your plants. This isn't always a bad thing -- if your infestation is bad enough, maybe it's the only choice. But it is a pretty serious step. Ladybugs and parasitic wasps are good bio options, and soapy water or even a good blast from the hose can hold them off pretty well.
Would you use chemicals to control aphids or other insects?
Yes -- why not?
Did You Know?
Cicadas are essentially giant aphids! They are closely related in both form and natural history.