Monday, July 13, 2015

More About Aphids than You Ever Thought You'd Know

I have a general awareness of aphids. I think of them as green, always showing up in quantity, and as food for ladybugs. A long time ago, I learned from the animated film Antz that ants "farm" them for their excrement, which is high in sugar and is called honeydew.

Well, in the past few weeks I've learned a lot more about them. First, they come in lots of other colors than green. This year appears to be the year of the red aphid in my yard.

I also learned that there is a particular species that feeds on oak trees, and that what I always thought was sap falling out of my oak trees is in fact aphid honeydew... or sugary poop, basically. It's eaten not just by ants but also yellow jackets and other insects.

When I was trying to confirm this sap vs. honeydew story that I had heard, I found this explainer from the University of Minnesota Extension service. And that told me some more amazing facts about aphids.

First, no matter what color or species they are, they all have two "tail pipes." I love the mental image of a bug with tail pipes. I imagine them zipping through the leaves making tiny noises that irritate the neighbors. Of course, they generally don't zip anywhere; they just sit on your plants sucking the juice out.

Second, their reproduction is among the funkiest I have ever heard about, but then, I was mostly asleep in biology, so maybe I'm naive. Quoting the University site,
Female aphids do not require a male to reproduce, i.e. they reproduce asexually [the offspring are all clones of the mother]. Females give birth to live young instead of laying eggs for most of the summer. Because of their rapid development time, asexual reproduction, and extended reproductive lifespan, the rose aphid is able to complete up to 15 generations during the growing season!

However, in the fall of the year, male nymphs are produced that mature and mate with females who then lay eggs that overwinter on the infested plant. In the spring, the eggs hatch and new female aphids begin feeding and reproducing.
So no males needed for most of the year, live births instead of eggs most of the year, only female aphids born from spring through late summer, with males only born in the fall. Sheesh!

Not only that, but aphids sometimes have wings and sometimes don't -- within the same species:
Winged forms of aphids develop when populations increase and plants become crowded. These migratory forms are better adapted to seek new food sources. These insects are poor fliers, however, and will typically only move within the canopy or to adjacent trees. On the other hand, they are so small that if they are picked up by wind, they can move for many miles.
It almost sounds like Lamarckism -- a trait develops on demand then goes away when it's not needed.

Aphids. Magical creatures right in my own back yard.

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