Many gardeners experience the elation at watching a garden flourish and grow from seed or seedling to full grown bounty. From new vegetables that peek their green shoots above the carefully tended soil, to the wobbly stems of flowers not yet bloomed that unfurl leaves and buds in anticipation of blooms to come, a growing garden is magical for its beauty and usefulness.
But vegetables, herbs, and flowers are not the only product of a well-tended garden. Every gardener, at one time or another, has to also fight the battle of invading pests that want to use their growing garden as their very own bug buffet. When a gardener spies the tell-tale sign that bugs have raided their tender garden growth, a strategy must be put into place to avoid losing all new growth to these tiny trespassers.
First, however, the bugs must be identified. As many gardeners know, aphids are the likely culprit in a garden infestation. Let’s talk about how to identify an aphid, how to avoid an infestation of aphids, and how to treat an aphid infestation if you find them on your plants.
What is an Aphid?
The aphid comes from the Aphididae family of insects that has around 4700 bugs commonly called an aphid. With so many varieties of aphids, it is easy to imagine that this little invading insect may have picked up some other monikers.
You might hear aphids also called plant lice, greenflies, or blackflies, along with the aphid’s name attached to the specific plant or flower that variety favors, like the lettuce root aphid or the potato aphid.
A few of the little critters are even described by their physical characteristics, like the woolly aphid that takes on a fluffy white appearance that makes them easily misidentified as a plant fungus.
Some 400 of the aphid varieties live specifically on food and fiber crops, posing a very real threat to food production on both a large and small scale.
But what all types of aphids have in common is that they are generally small, soft-bodied insects that reproduce rapidly. They live on all kinds of plants mutualistically with ants.
This means that the aphids and the ants work together to protect each other so the ants can benefit from the aphid’s secretions while the aphids are protected by the ants from predators. Together, they can be a destructive force that is hard to fight for many gardeners.
What Do Aphids Look Like?
The color of these aggressive little bugs can range from a white, green, gray, brown, black, to even pink hued. The color of the aphid is usually a good key to what their chosen food target is.
For example, the pink aphids like roses, and the brown colored ones can be found on potatoes, and the green ones are commonly found on vegetable stems and leaves. The almost colorless aphids can be hard to spot on almost any plant with their near-clear body as well as their small size that usually reaches only a few millimeters in length, the common size for most aphids.
The shape of the aphid is usually rounded or oval for most species. Additionally, the most common shape is a soft, pillowy look, with little to no visible differentiation between the head, the body, and the tail.
A common physical trait that all aphids carry is the inclusion of two small protrusions near their tail called cornicles, or siphons. These are a defensive mechanism to help dispel repellants to scare away would-be predators.
Aphids also have a double set of transparent wings when they are young, further concealing their presence on plants. The back wings are much larger than the front wings, a dead giveaway in trying to identify an insect as an aphid in its young stages since many adult aphids do not have wings.
Another notable physical characteristic of an aphid is its antennae. They have two small basal segments that are the connectors to their head, and then up to four more segments to their antennae.
Along with their long, thin legs, aphids look like they are all body, since their legs, antennae, and wings are all small or nearly transparent. Their distinctive looks make it fairly simple to identify an insect as part of the aphid family of invasive insects.
Unlike many other insects, the aphid has a magical reproductive system that supports the aphid’s mass infestation strategy. The aphid possesses the ability to reproduce without the females mating or even maturing, what some call a “virginal birth.”
This ability means that the aphid can reproduce or develop without being fertilized, and they are basically a clone of their parent. Called parthenogenic, this type of reproduction can produce up to 100 offspring at time, a devastating mathematical statistic for any gardener fighting these tiny invaders.
The other type of reproductive phase for aphids is the amphigonic phase, or sexual reproduction, which follows a more traditional procreative pattern with fertilization and growth of the eggs within the female.
It is believed that the aphid switches between the two phases of reproduction styles to guarantee the preservation of their species. While not the only species to have an adaptive reproductive system, it does allow the aphid to continue on even in poor environments that might not have allowed the aphid to prosper.
How Does an Aphid Destroy a Plant?
With such an auspicious creation, it is no wonder that the aphid is a master at destroying plants. As hordes of new aphids are produced at every birthing cycle, the staggering volume present of the constantly reproducing aphids is clearly going to be a problem for most plants.
But how do aphids actually destroy their host plants? Let’s look at the details to better understand how these tiny insects are a problem for plants.
They Feed on Sap
Busy little creatures need to eat, and aphids are no exception. The aphid loves to suck out the sap and other nutritious, juicy materials from inside of plants. They are equipped with sucking mouthparts, called stylets. These little tubes allow the aphid to easily puncture the surface of a plant and then extract the liquid nutrients easily and effectively.
Their nimble bodies are also equipped with thin legs that allow them to reach all parts of a plant. At some phases, their wings help them to move to a host where they have more to syphon when their host runs dry.
Some varieties are winged all the time, allowing for maximum movements when necessary, making them especially virulent for host plants.
Sap Ingestion Leads to Excretions
Like most all creatures, aphids cannot live on sap alone as a nutrient. Instead, they take those sugars and self-regulate their systems by excreting some substances and keeping others for nutrition, to put it simply.
You will see their excretions on the plant leaves and stems that they are eating. Those leaves will be sticky or tacky as a result of this elimination, a sure sign of aphid infestation.
Aphid Infestations and What to Look For
Whether you have seen the minute bugs or not, you should check to see if they have moved into any host plants on a regular basis, as their infestation is difficult to remove once aphids have taken over.
However, there are a few tell-tall signs that you can look for to see if your plants are unhappily accommodating the aphid on their stems or leaves. Here is a list of the evidence you will see with an aphid infiltration:
Japanese Gardening Knives
How to Treat Infestations
If you are able to see that the aphids have made their way onto the leaves and stems of your plants, you can confirm that you have an aphid infestation. You might only see the remaining evidence left by the aphids like the sooty mold, curling or damaged leaves, or unattractively misshapen fruits of your plant.
No matter how you determined that you have aphids, once you know you have them, it is time to look at how to best rid your plants of this invasive, stealthy pest. You have multiple options for clearing them out of your garden, and you may even choose to implement more than one strategy, as well, to guarantee that the aphid will be packing its bags for greener pastures in the future.
Remedies can be categories as either chemical or natural, and both work equally well. Use a strategy or combination of strategies that works best for how you like to garden, whether you are comfortable with utilizing chemicals in your gardening or you only use organic methods, or something in between.
Unfortunately, most aphids are resistant to the common insecticides that are available. Since they reproduce rapidly and also do not attach to the flowers of a plant, insecticides are not really helpful. However, a few remedies that involve chemical substances can be very effective in treating aphid infestations.
1. Dish soap and water. Use a pure liquid soap if possible, like Castile, and then add a few drops to a spray bottle full of water. Spray this concoction over the whole plant every few days, targeting all areas that the aphids are visible as well as the undersides of the leaves and stems where the aphids may be hiding their eggs or larvae.
The soap will dissolve the aphid’s protective outer layer, eventually killing them and eliminating the aphid from your plant. The eggs will not hatch when coated, as well, preventing new bugs.
2. Alcohol and water. Mix about a 3 to 1 concentration of rubbing or grain alcohol into a spray bottle, and spray onto plants, stems, and undersides of leaves. This mixture seems to be a little more effective than the soapy blend, as the alcohol is stronger by nature.
To make this even more effective, add in a few drops of the soap to combine the strength of both remedies into one spray bottle. To avoid harming your plant, spray a small test patch on the plant near the end of the day when the sun will no longer shine in that area.
Check the area in the next day or two to see if the plant has an adverse reaction to the mixture. Some plants are very sensitive to soaps and alcohols, and the sun can intensify their reactivity, so checking out how your plant will be affected by the treatment is a necessary step to saving the plant from aphids.
3. Neem oil. Spread on this naturally occurring pesticide either through a commercially bought spray or a homemade one created with oil drops and water dilution. While technically not a chemical, this type of remedy is still a chemical compound, and many natural gardeners only want to use non-commercially created mixtures on their plants.
Luckily, there are plenty of natural remedies to choose from when looking for ways to remove aphids from your garden or plants. My favorite requires only a little water and tenacity to remove the aphids on a regular basis. Here are the best natural aphid removal strategies.
1. Blast them with water. This method is simple. Utilizing a water hose, potentially with a gardening nozzle that allows you to narrow the water stream, spray the leaves and stems of your infected plant. The cold-water spray will dislodge the aphids from the leaves and discourage them from wanting to reattach to this location.
Since not every plant can withstand a heavy spray, be sure to determine if a plant is established enough to be able to stand up to a thorough, and possibly repeated, blast from the water hose. This may be repeated until the plant shows more infestation signs.
Be sure to balance this treatment with the water needs of this particular plant species. Plants that need little water to be healthy would not benefit from this specific treatment remedy for aphids.
2. Suffocate them with flour. Using regular baking flour from your kitchen, sprinkle the white substance liberally all over the plant stems and leaves. The flour will effectively suffocate the aphids as well as the eggs or larvae.
If you have a large number of infected plants, or plants that do not tolerate high water volumes, then this might be a perfect anti-aphid solution to try. Remember that when you water a plant that has been coated in flour, you will need to rinse off the sticky flour concoction a little bit once the aphids have died or moved on.
3. Add Diatomaceous Earth. This chalky, powdery substance is organic, coming from the fossilized remains of single-cell organisms found in watery areas like riverbeds or freshwater lakes.
This powder is a natural additive that discourages pests. While there are even food grades of this compound fit for humans as well as animal consumption, be sure to use the pest control version for a most effective strategy to rid your garden from aphid infestation.
4. Add in Ladybugs. The adorable red and black lady beetles that all of us delight in seeing in nature are actually an amazing predator to aphids.
These red beetles love to feast on aphids, so introducing them in masse to an infected plant area is a great way to not only enjoy more of the variety of nature with their presence but also to minimize the aphid infestation by providing the ladybugs with a perfect food source. Your plants will benefit from their introduction, but be sure to carefully establish the lady beetles by:
5. Bring in the Birds. Wrens and chickadees love to feast on aphids, so create a hospitable environment to welcome them to your garden. Building them a house that is placed nearby the garden or infested plants is a perfect way to introduce these pest-consuming avians to your garden to do your bidding.
They will appreciate the food source and will stay a while when a home to their liking is established. Of course, it may take a while for the birds to find your home, but they usually always do seem to find a home that is built just for them!
6. Green Lacewing Larvae to the Rescue. Like ladybugs, these creepy-crawlies love to eat up the aphids, so introducing them to your garden or infested plants is a smart, natural solution. Buy these in the larvae stage, and then place them in and around your plants. Amazingly, each of these hungry larvae can eat up to 600 aphids before they become adult lacewings!
7. Overwinter a garden with silver reflective mulch cloths. This protective surface can discourage aphid larvae or eggs from infesting your garden areas.
Avoiding Infestations of Aphids
Of course, cleaning up a garden that is infested with aphids is always a task that gardeners do not look forward to, so instead you might look for solutions that will help you avoid an aphid overrun in the first place.
There are a lot of inventive, natural ideas that can help you to avoid these pesky bugs in your garden, with a little planning and a little elbow grease to implement them.
Utilize Companion Planting Strategies
Just like all of nature, somethings go together well and benefit the others it is nearby, and somethings do not harmonize with other beings nearby. This natural concept is perfect to harness for your garden.
Since some plants are natural repellants to invasive bugs like aphids, planting them nearby plants that are infected by aphids or are likely to become infected in the future is a great idea. Here are some common companion plants and how they work.
Trap Plants Attract Aphids
Another strategy is to grow specific plants that will act as a trap to the problematic aphids. These plants will need to be located very near the affected or potentially affected areas and should be checked often themselves to make sure that they are not overly infested, encouraging aphids to move to your more valuable plants.
Don’t Forget the Ants
If your aphids have found companionship with ants, you must also deal with the ants to completely rid the plant of the aphids. Ants dislike spicy flavored substances as well as overly sweet ones, which are toxic to ants.
Adding in a hot spice like cayenne pepper or drops of concentrated rosemary or clove oil to your water and soap or alcohol spray bottle is an effective way to rid your plant of both aphids and ants.
You can also employ a highly sticky product to the stems of the plant, causing ants to stop in their tracks and not continue to invade the plant further. Either way, removing ants that are working together with the aphids is a necessary step that must be taken to save the affected plants.
Healthy Plants Without Aphids
No matter how you solve your aphid issue, it is possible to save your garden or plant so it can live a longer, healthy life. And with a little prevention and a few ounces of cure, most plants and gardens can be rid of the tiny, invasive and sometimes elusive bugs known as aphids.