Gardening for Wildness: Aphids, Treehoppers, and Garden Ants

The insect order Hemiptera contains several sap-sucking herbivores, including aphids, whiteflies, leafhoppers, treehoppers, scale insects, and true bugs, all familiar to observant gardeners.  By far the most represented members of this group in our garden are aphids, also known as plant lice.  Aphids seek out the new leaves and tender stems of garden plants, piercing epidermal tissues and sucking the nutrient-rich sap.  A few aphids rapidly become a herd, standing room only on your favorite herbaceous perennial or shrub.

I have known otherwise rational gardeners to bring out the big guns from the chemical shelf of the tool shed when they spotted a single aphid.  Some of the most toxic insecticides, including nicotine sulfate, malathion, diazinon, and dimethoate have been used to kill aphids along with beneficial insects and other forms of garden life.  Hopefully those days are gone for good.

In my mind, aphids are evidence of a healthy garden ecosystem, playing an enormously important role in transferring solar energy from plants to animals.  For starters, healthy garden ecosystems are homes for a variety of aphid predators, including ladybugs, lacewings, parasitic wasps, and syrphid flies (also known as hoverflies or flower flies).  Some of these predators may also benefit the gardener by preying on other garden herbivores, such as caterpillars.  In order to maintain populations of these beneficial insects about the garden, there must be a steady supply of their prey, including an abundance of aphids.

In the U.S. alone there are over 1400 aphid species, each feeding in summer on one plant species or a group of related plant species.  Colonies grow rapidly as females give birth to live young, all female; males enter the picture, if at all, only when it is time to produce eggs for overwintering.  In a typical colony, some of the female aphids will be winged, others wingless.

Aphids have complex life cycles that maximize acquisition of nutrients from their plant hosts.  They become so numerous each summer because they are able to use plant resources efficiently, exploiting host plants with few measurable effects, particularly if the plants are not water stressed.  I often find aphid colonies literally covering the stems of garden plants, yet the plants continue to grow normally.  And typically the aphid colony has has been infiltrated by one or more aphid predators bent on reducing the colony’s numbers.

While the details differ, the typical aphid life cycle begins with tiny eggs laid in autumn on the twigs or branches of deciduous trees.  The eggs hatch in spring, releasing a generation of “stem mothers” that move to the emerging leaves of the tree where nitrogen is most abundant.  These wingless females are both viviparous and parthenogenic, giving birth to live young without mating.  One adult aphid can produce five nymphs per day over a 30 day period, all clones of the stem mothers.

The nymphs go through five instar (molting) stages to become adult females, a process that takes about 30 days.  As the nitrogen levels in the tree’s leaves decline, winged females are produced that fly to summer host plants, typically herbaceous perennials with stems and leaves that are high in nitrogen.  Colonies grow through the summer, often numbering in the hundreds, even thousands, on a single plant.

At the end of summer, triggered by reduced nitrogen levels in the summer host plants, winged females and winged males are produced.  After mating, the females fly to the winter host tree species to lay eggs.

Oleander aphids on milkweed plants.

Oleander aphids on milkweed plants.

One interesting variation in life cycle can be found in Aphis nerii, the oleander aphid, also called the milkweed aphid.  A bright yellow aphid with black appendages, this Mediterranean species has spread throughout the world.  In North America it is an obligate parthenocarpic species in which males do not occur.  Winged females are produced when colonies become overcrowded and when it is necessary to change host plants.  Females overwinter on host trees.

In summer, when I find a ladybug larvae in the midst of an aphid colony, or aphid exoskeletons punctured with the emergence holes of adult wasps, or a chickadee, warbler, robin, or norther flicker plucking aphids from garden plants, I feel that all is right in the garden world.  In winter I can stand at the window and watch chickadees pecking aphid eggs off of rhododendron branches.

Entomologists who study aphids agree that aphids rarely do enough damage to warrant intervention by the gardener.  And in exceptional situations, when predators cannot keep up with a heavy infestation on young plants, mechanical controls will work.  The gardener can dislodge them with a strong stream of water.  Once knocked to the ground, aphids have a difficult time climbing back up to the stem tip.

Aphids, Ants, and Sooty Mold: A Lesson in Garden Ecology

I recall one June morning, leaving the porch by the back steps, spotting a cluster of blue aphids on the tip of a red elder stem.  At least a hundred aphids completely encircled the stem, tapping the sugar-rich sap just beneath the surface, while several winged females prepared to migrate and establish new colonies on nearby plants.

A dozen or so black and red ants worked at one end of the colony, milking the aphids for honeydew by stroking them with their antennae.  Honeydew, excreted by the feeding aphids and rich in plant sugars, is highly valued by ants as a high carbohydrate food.

Drops of honeydew missed by the ants had accumulated on leaves below the aphids and started a growing colony of a fungus, commonly called sooty mold, on the upper leaf surfaces.  The mold blocks sunlight from the leaf surface, rendering the few affected leaves useless in photosynthesis.

On the other end of the aphid colony, a lady beetle larva was devouring an aphid.  In the absence of the ants, there might have been more of these larvae, but the ants protected their herd of aphids from predation by killing and eating the lady beetle larvae, a good source of needed protein.

Aphids and aphid-farming ants, predaceous beetle larvae and a sooty mold, characters in a drama unfolding within the terminal six inches of a single elderberry stem, a lesson in garden ecology before leaving the back steps.  A week later, the stage was empty, all the players gone, and the elderberry no worse for wear.

Treehopper Nymphs and the Ants that Protect Them

One summer day, working next to a bed of tall sunflowers, I noticed a lone ant crawling across a leaf.  What was the ant doing six feet off the ground?  I turned the leaf over and, sure enough, there were two other ants at work, tending a herd of tiny insects.  The ants seemed to have divided the herd into two groups and each ant was stroking one of their charges with its antennae.  I turned over other sunflower leaves and found more of the same.

Treehopper adults and nymphs under the watchful eye of an ant.

Treehopper adults and nymphs under the watchful eye of an ant.

While I often found ants “milking” aphids for honeydew, these little insects were clearly not aphids.  Excited by the prospects of adding yet another species to my growing list of garden biodiversity, I grabbed my camera and began shooting, hoping that at least one photo would be useful in solving the mystery.

I poured over Internet images of nymphs, assuming that the unknown insects were immature stages in the life cycle of a species closely allied with aphids.  Persistence paid off and I finally found an image that looked exactly like the creatures in my photographs.  My mystery nymphs were treehoppers, Entylia carinata.

Like aphids, treehopper nymphs and adults typically do little damage to garden plants.  And while they are often found on oaks, walnuts, black cherries, and other tree species, E. carinata also feed on several herbaceous garden annuals and perennials, including joe-pye weed, calendulas, artemisias, achilleas, rudbeckias, goldenrods, and, of course, sunflowers.  We grow several of these perennials in our garden, yet this was the first time I had run across E. carinata, no doubt because I was spending more time turning over leaves.

Turn over enough leaves and you begin to understand the relationship between gardening success and the intricate balance of insect herbivores and their predators.

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-New-England-Gardeners-Year/187285218055676.)