What are those white bugs on your plants? They’re probably aphids! Here are our best tips on how to identify and control aphids in the garden.

What Are Aphids?

Aphids seem to find their way into every garden. They are small, soft-bodied insects that can survive in almost any zone. Aphids multiply quickly, so try to control them before reproduction starts. Many generations can occur in one season. The good news is that they tend to move rather slowly and are relatively easy to control.

Identification

Identifying Aphids

Aphids are tiny (under 1/4-inch), and often invisible to the naked eye. Various species can appear white, black, brown, gray, yellow, light green, or even pink! Some may have a waxy or woolly coating. They have pear-shaped bodies with long antennae; the nymphs look similar to adults. Most species have two short tubes (called cornicles) projecting from their hind end.

Adults are usually wingless, but most species can develop a winged form when populations become crowded, so that when food quality suffers, the insects can travel to other plants, reproduce, and start a new colony. Aphids usually feed in large groups, although you might occasionally see them singly or in small numbers.

While aphids in general feed on a wide variety of plants, different species of aphids can be specific to certain plants. For example, some species include bean aphids, cabbage aphids, potato aphids, green peach aphids, melon aphids, and woolly apple aphids.

Some aphids are darker colors like brown. The potato aphid is a common brown aphid.
Some aphids are darker colors like brown. The potato aphid is a common brown aphid.

Aphid Damage

Nymphs and adults feed on plant juices, attacking leaves, stems, buds, flowers, fruit, and/or roots, depending on species. Most especially like succulent or new growth. Some, such as the green peach aphid, feed on a variety of plants, while others, such as the rosy apple aphid, focus on one or just a few plant hosts.

  • Look for misshapen, curling, stunted, or yellow leaves. Be sure to check the undersides of leaves, aphids love to hide there.
  • If the leaves or stems are covered with a sticky substance, that is a sign that aphids may have been sipping sap. The honeydew, a sugary liquid produced by the insects as waste, can attract other insects, such as ants, which gather the substance for food. When aphids feed on trees, their honeydew can drop onto cars, outdoor furniture, driveways, etc.
  • The honeydew can sometimes develop a fungal growth called sooty mold, causing branches and leaves to appear black.
  • Aphids feeding on flowers or fruit can cause them to become distorted.
  • Some aphid species cause galls to form on roots or leaves.
  • Aphids may transmit viruses to certain plants, and also attract other insects that prey on them.

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Control and Prevention

How to Get Rid of Aphids

  • Try spraying cold water on the leaves, sometimes all aphids need is a cool blast to dislodge them.
  • If you have an aphid invasion, dust plants with flour. It constipates the pests.
  • Use commercially available biological controls or by spraying with insecticidal soap or horticultural oil.
  • You can often get rid of aphids by wiping or spraying the leaves of the plant with a mild solution of water and a few drops of dishwashing detergent such as Ivory.
  • Stir together 1 quart of water, 1 tsp of liquid dish soap and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Do not dilute before spraying on plants.
  • Organic controls include soapy emulsion, horticultural oil (read the directions), and pyrethrum spray. Soapy water should be reapplied every 2-3 days for 2 weeks.
  • Use homemade garlic or tomato-leaf sprays.

How to Prevent Aphids

  • For fruit or shade trees, spray dormant oil to kill overwintering eggs.
  • You can purchase beneficial insects, such as lady beetles, lacewings, and parasitic wasps, which will feed on aphids. These are usually ordered via mail—check the Internet for labs. They should keep the aphid populations controlled in the first place.
    • You can also plant flowering groundcovers in home orchards to attract predators.
  • Companion planting can be very helpful to keep aphids away from your plants in the first place. For example:
    • Aphids are repelled by catnip.
    • Aphids are especially attracted to mustard and nasturtium. You can plant these near more valuable plants as traps for the aphids.
    • Nasturtiums spoil the taste of fruit tree sap for aphids and will help keep aphids off broccoli.
    • Garlic and chives repel aphids when planted near lettuce, peas, or rose bushes.
Hosing down your plants is one way to control the aphid population in your garden.
Hosing down your plants is one way to control the aphid population in your garden.

Using Alcohol to Control Aphids

Isopropanol (rubbing alcohol) works fine and is easy to find, but be sure it doesn’t have additives. Ethanol (grain alcohol) seems to work best. Alcohol usually comes in 70 percent strength in stores (or 95 percent strength purchased commercially). To make an insecticidal spray, mix equal parts 70 percent alcohol and water (or, if using 95 percent alcohol, mix 1 part alcohol to 1 ½ parts water).

You can also add alcohol to a soapy emulsion to make it more effective. For example, in a spray bottle combine 5 cups water, 2 cups alcohol, and 1 tablespoon liquid soap.

Caution: When applying an alcohol or soap spray, or a combination, always test a small area first, and apply in morning or evening, when the sun is not beating down. Watch the plant for a few days for any adverse reactions before applying more. Plants can be sensitive to alcohol and soap. Also, some soaps have additives that can damage plants—select the purest form.

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