A world of nasty females

Musings from the Hill

What’s green — or black, perhaps red or brown? Should we try pink? Or maybe “some other color”?

“The Bug Review” continues “these pear-shaped insects are slow moving and range in size from 1/16 to 1/8 inch long. They have conspicuous slender antennae and near the rear end of the abdomen there are two tubes called cornicles. Some may have transparent wings.”

Don’t know about you but I’ll have to take their word for it. Wings on insects 1/16 of an inch long? and cornicles?

I can’t find the magnifying glass I used to treasure so all I can see is little whitish oblong creatures. Bugs. And lots of them.

I’ve had them outdoors as well as on various houseplants. Right now my prized lemon is infected. “Prized” to me because it has a lemon that hasn’t fallen off (yet) as well as new blossoms that smell so sweet. I’m doing all I can to nourish that lemon. My fruits seldom develop (though some of the blossoms produce lemon-bulbs but drop off in days). This one is currently two inches long and is as green as a lime. Unfortunate it’s on that stem — and that stem only — where the aphids have chosen to set up housekeeping.

The little nasties prefer new growth. Once they find a good place to settle, they apparently invite all their “sister and their cousins whom they reckon by the dozens” and so on.

Being sucking insects they’re after the sap in the stem. If they pull out enough, the chosen (as it were) stem or leaf may become distorted. No, that’s not an injury you’re seeing, just a lack of vital fluids in that particular place.

I would certainly have chosen a less pleasantly associated word for the stuff but scientist have named the sap honeydew. It’s sticky. Get enough of those bugs making honeydew and you could well find it on your car, the sidewalk, or even your favorite patio furniture. They don’t discriminate. And they’re so tiny! Worse, a “sooty mold” may grow in the honeydew which will blacken the stems, leaves — or your untouched patio furniture.

I am rather ashamed to acknowledge that it’s been exactly five years since I sent my pictures and questions off to Mark Baldwin, still one of my “go-to” guys. I’m not sure on which side of the ocean he was residing at that point but his answer was immensely helpful (as always). It was he who clued me in on the honeydew and, positively, their connection with ants.

That those two have a strong relationship surprised me. One so small and the other, while varying in size, definitely larger. (And overrunning my home as I type.)

The word “farm” appears because apparently the ants keep the aphids, protecting them as they milk the latter to get that honeydew. That in turn leaves the aphids (I will never be a fan) freer of predators and parasites. Reading further on Google, I learn that the ants actually take the aphids home at night, back to their anty nests, returning them in the morning. (This is an example of “mutualism” or an interaction between species that’s beneficial to each.) I’m not going to call Google a liar but might have to sneak out after midnight to see if the aphids really have gone “home” at night. Right now, I don’t see my ants have any interest in playing host to anyone.

But don’t the ants eat the aphids then? Not at all. That would not be playing fair. Ants don’t want the meat just the sugary sap. Wasps could also seek out the sap if given the chance though it’s mostly the ants at the trough.

So where do these pesky aphids come from? The females lay eggs which have no need of fertilization in the wintertime, producing only female generations which are born during the spring and summer. A typical aphid can live only 25 days but can produce up to 80 new ones in that period. And doesn’t it look like they’re just lying there being as lazy (and still) as can be?

Concluding with a question I admit I wouldn’t have thought to ask: How can I tell if my aphids are dead? Black dots are dead aphids. Spray and then, waiting twenty-four hours, rinse off your plants. My favorite, Thalassa Cruso, suggests mixing a lather of soap (not detergent) and lukewarm water, swishing the upended plant well before rinsing in a bowl of clear, cold water. Sounds quite practical but alas! not for my tree. At least now I know why they didn’t show up until now.

Susan Crossett has lived in Arkwright for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. “Her Reason for Being” was published in 2008 with “Love in Three Acts” following in 2014. Information on all the Musings, her books and the author may be found at Susancrossett.com.


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