Aphids, Tiny Harlots On the Loose

sayle mar5 aphids.jpg

Photo by Carol Ann Sayle

The tiny harlots fly in on gusty, dry north winds. Or they are placed on the vegetable plants by their pimps, the fire ants, who have tended their eggs through the winter.

By either method, the aphids arrive pregnant! We cannot abide the aphids, as they obviously don't possess morals, and are greedy to boot.

Although there are many varieties of aphids, our spring visitors are those who favor the brassica family: kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli. Multiplying so prolifically, they could be the poster moms for any fertility clinic. Hungry, they and their offspring quickly cover the leaves of these plants like pavement. Icky, gray, slimy pavement.

Spring is these aphids' favorite season, and -- after over-wintering in the egg stage in the ant tunnels underground or who knows where -- they make the most of it. Their crops are ready.

We cannot abide the aphids, as they obviously don't possess morals, and are greedy to boot.

With warmer temperatures, the juicy, nitrogen-rich vegetable plants revel in the sunshine, while in the neighborhood surrounding the farm, the enduring drought has left the landscape brown. Only our vegetables are still green and provide the liquid nutrition the aphids need. For a while, anyway. In their greed, the aphids suck the very life out of their only source of sustenance. The plants sicken, become stunted, and eventually die -- or wish to.

Lady birds and lace wings are natural predators of aphids. While the adults eat a fair amount of the "plant lice," their nymphs are ravenous eaters. Other predators, parasitic wasps, lay eggs in the plump aphid bodies and the emerging nymphs eat the aphid from the inside to the skin, leaving dried aphid "mummies" stuck to the leaf.

Good for the wasps, but these mummies are still a problem on leaves we want to eat! The human option is to spray the infestation with a smothering horticultural oil, but this is an infestation and the plants, in the ground since September, are old and not worth saving.

So, this morning the dinosaur kale, the Brussels sprouts, and their parasitic cargo had to go. To mourn the plants would speak to our own greed. Everything has its day; the departure is expected. The aphids just hurry it along a bit.

Farm hands Steven and Don Lupe took on the two fated crops and cut their stalks off at the soil level, leaving the carbon-sheathed, mineral-rich roots in the ground to nourish the soil and the eventual next crop. Many of the aphid-crusted leaves traveled by wheelbarrow to the hen house, while the remainder covered the bare soil as a mulch.

The aphids on those leaves will soon die as the leaves desiccate in today's untimely heat -- 90 degrees -- but first they'll likely produce some winged daughters (already pregnant) who will fly the winds to our next crop. And if that doesn't work, the fire ants will carry them there.

We've got to get those ants!

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Carol Ann Sayle is co-founder and co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm, a five-acre urban, organic farm in Austin, Texas.

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