Living

An aphid existence is, well, draining

An inspection of the milkweed pod reveals aphids, and if you look closely, you will see one ant among them.
An inspection of the milkweed pod reveals aphids, and if you look closely, you will see one ant among them. Special to the Sun Herald

The sap-sucking lifestyle of the tiny aphid should make it the center of much folk wisdom and pass-me-down sayings.

But rare is a mention of the tiny insect, with the exception being angry aphid-infested gardeners.

You’ll never hear anyone admonish a free-loading relative or friend, “Oh, don’t be such an aphid!” I do wonder why because this tiny insect deserves the derogatory barbs.

Yesterday, after returning from a five-week stay with California family, I was delighted to see a flock of swallowtails take up residence in my absence. I started snapping photographs of Tiger, Spicebush and Black Swallowtail butterflies hovering around the larger-than-me blooming bushes I plant just for butterflies and hummingbirds.

Next, I inspected the new “butterfly weed” bushes I planted this spring, surprised not to find one butterfly alight on them. This particular plant, officially called Asclepia currassavica, is a tropical version of our native milkweed that produces helicopter seeds that burst out of the pods in autumn.

The butterfly weed plants had leaped a foot higher in my absence, but something was wrong. The immature, supposedly green seed pods matched the golden yellow hue of the flower blossoms. Aphids! They covered the pod like armor with their golden-yellow bodies.

My mind whirred backward to the first summer at my house in Biloxi’s Holy Land neighborhood. Coming from a family that grows flowers and vegetables, even in small places, I was to adhere to family tradition. The soil a block from the beach, however, is sandy and problematic until several years of digging in rich compost.

Change of plans

So I temporarily turned to container gardening. The tomatoes thrived that first year but on one memorable morning inspection I discovered aphids. Oh, no!

I also come from a family that does not automatically reach for pesticides and chemicals. So I did my research and decided if I had to spray, an organic insecticidal soap would be the way to go. In that research I also learned that ants “harvest” aphids. Interesting.

So I waited and watched. By mid-afternoon, ants had discovered the aphids and they were carting them off to who knows where. Perhaps an aphid milking farm? By the next morning the aphids were gone, gone, gone, never to return. That first summer of gardening was quite an eye-opener on letting Mother Nature take its course.

Bad news

Yesterday’s discovery was different. The infestation was bad and during the day, I spied only one ant slurping up the honeydew that is a favorite food created as a byproduct of aphids sucking the life out of plants. Ants and aphids have a symbiotic relationship.

With no natural predators obviously at work, I knew I had to tackle the infestation if the seed pods are to mature for their flighty magic trick.

I found an old bottle of Safer Soap and sprayed the aphids carefully, not wanting to leave unnecessary residue on leaves and flowers for unsuspecting good insects. Today, most aphids have turned from yellow gold to dead brown. The few that didn’t got squashed.

Now I know I have to keep an eagle eye on the plants if I want to harvest the milkweed pods.

More on aphids

Did you know there are more than 4,400 species of potentially destructive aphids and they are found anywhere where there are plants? Their honeydew by-product is relished by ants and that’s why ants sometimes farm them to keep predators, including lady bugs, from eating the aphids.

Somewhere in all this, there must be an aphid lesson for we humans. But rather than spend any more contemplation time, I’m heading outside for more butterfly photographs.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.

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