The ubiquitous aphid can be found wherever there are plants. They are most numerous in gardens and in city trees than in wild places, increasing in numbers from the warm days of spring through to hard frosts. Look for aphids (if you want to!) on susceptible plants like hybrid lupines and roses, and on certain trees like Elm, Manitoba Maple, Mayday and others. You will discover many other interesting insects associated with the aphids.
You can recognize aphids by their small size and that they tend to occur in clusters, usually on the tenderest new growth, or clustered on the underside of new leaves. A typical aphid is pinhead-sized pale green, but may be coloured pink, dark brown or black depending on the colour of the plant sap they are feeding from. There are usually winged and wingless generations.
There are many species of aphids. Some are native, and many are introduced and have worldwide distribution. Some aphids feed from a wide range of plants, and others are quite exacting in their needs. For example, the Black Willow Aphid is a humongous 3.5 mm (1/8 in.) long and has small orange projections from the backside.
Sometimes strange growths, curling leaves or deformities are observed instead of the aphid that did the deed. For example, the currant aphid produces red pillowy lumps on currant leaves. The honeysuckle aphid deforms the growing ends of some types of honeysuckle into crooked ‘witches brooms’.
Unlike leafhoppers to which aphids are closely related, they don’t jump around when they are disturbed. Once they fasten their piercing mouthparts to a juicy plant, they tend to stay put. Aphids produce characteristic sticky honeydew that is sometimes noticed before the aphids are. The honeydew attracts wasps, butterflies, some moths and famously, some species of ants, which adore the sweet honeydew. They like honeydew so much that they protect the aphid from predators. Some ants even herd collections of aphids like so many tiny cows.
Aphids have complex and fascinating life cycles. Often, an aphid species depends on alternate hosts. That is, one generation feeds on a certain type of plant, and the next generation moves to a completely different type of plant. Aphids also make use of two unusual reproductive strategies, depending upon what generation they belong to. During the summer, vivipary, or live birth, is common. Females are born ‘pregnant’ and just pop new aphids from their abdomen as they feed. These summer generations are parthenogenetic, meaning that they do not mate, and indeed there are no males. Eventually, a winged generation of males and females arises, and they mate and lay eggs in the more familiar bug lifestyle.
Although aphids are the bane of gardeners, aphids are extremely important hosts for a number of parasitoid predators, and an essential meal for numerous other insects, as well as birds. Aphids have a vital role in the chain of life, even in your garden. Keeping aphid populations to manageable numbers on susceptible plants, rather than garden-wide eradication should be the gardener’s aim.
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