Most gardeners probably know what aphids are. There are a lot of other people who do as well. Yet, they may not know some of the surprising facts about this insect that both astound and confound people.
There are far more species of aphids than most people are aware that there are. Some are black, some brown, some green, some have wings and some don't. Some have small mouth parts that can only puncture a leaf and others have a mouth that can drill through the bark of bushes or trees.
People who have had an aphid infestation have probably noticed how fast there are more and more aphids. There is a good reason for this. Early in the year, when aphids emerge from the eggs, all are female. What is more, they are all born pregnant. The term does apply, since aphids give live birth through much of the year, to more pregnant females. The females can give birth to many babies in a day, which is why the numbers can explode so rapidly, becoming an infestation in a short time. Within a week, a couple of aphids can result in thousands.
Only when temperatures cool and days grow shorter do the females begin to give birth to males. The males then breed with females, who subsequently lay eggs in sheltered locations so they can over-winter, to start the cycle once again.
Diet and honeydew
These tiny insects feed on plant juices or sap. These fluids contain a large amount of sugars. Like most animals, though, aphids require protein, which exists in lesser amounts in the plant liquids. As they digest the sap, they exude the sugary leftover. This is called honeydew, and it can be produced in profusion during an infestation. This can result in a sticky mess under trees, such as on car windshields, lawn furniture and the like.
As disgusting as it may sound, the honeydew is a great source of plant sugars for humans. Many insects and other animals readily partake of the bounty.
Watchdogs and predators
Because of the honeydew that is produced, many species of ants that like sweets will actually protect and guard aphids. The ants will protect the aphids from other creatures and will even move them from one plant to another, spreading an infestation as a byproduct. The most common predator of an aphid is probably a lady bug, but even these can be fended away by the determined aggressiveness of a colony of ants.
In return, the ants get honeydew by stroking the aphids. The ants get the high-sugar fluid, so they often keep careful watch over their 'herds' of aphids, much like a dairy farmer might do with his cow herd.
A single aphid will seldom cause a great deal of damage to a plant. However, as previously explained, a single aphid can quickly become many thousands. These can decimate crops by drinking a huge amount of the fluids the plants need to survive. In addition, they can spread plant diseases and fungi by feeding off of an infected plant, then feeding off of an uninfected one.
There is little doubt that aphids case a great deal of problems for farmers and commercial growers. These insects cause plenty of damage to wild plants, as well. However, this is an interesting creature and one that does have potential to be helpful for starving people. The idea is understandably repugnant to a lot of people, however starvation is also not something likely to be on the list of good things for those same individuals to contemplate. In any event, aphids do have quite a few interesting facts associated with them.