This was no vegetarian’s delight. Unpacking my bag of farm produce last week, I found that it contained more than this vegetable lover bargained for. The cornucopia of Island-grown goods had more than just plant matter, the produce was packing protein! Hidden among the veggies were petite podlike green gremlins in the form of aphids.
Some insect-ingesting types might think these creatures provided a nutritional bonus in the bag, not only in the sense of their animal protein, but also in the form of a sweet treat that they produce. Aphids eat plant sap, which is rich in sugar but low in nitrogen (both of which they need to survive). To assure themselves adequate nutrients, aphids must consume a lot of plant sap. To rid themselves of the excess sugar, they excrete a maple syruplike substance called honeydew. Ants are known to consume this nectar, though occasionally humans are also thought to have partaken.
While you might not imagine that aphids would produce enough honeydew for human consumption, it is surprising to learn that one aphid can produce seven drops of honeydew per hour, amounting to more than 130 per cent of their own body weight. A biblical account tells of the Israelites eating “manna” to survive in the desert, and some scholars believe that manna is the honeydew of an aphid or other insect.
Revulsion is another reaction one might reasonably have had, upon finding these pests in the produce. I didn’t want to use any chemicals on them, though, and thus ruin what might be my last Vineyard-grown treats of the season. Something had to be done soon, since the infestation was making the produce appear to be moving! No wonder aphids are called plant lice and are the bane of farmers and gardeners everywhere. These insects were plentiful, lurking among the leek’s leaves, basking under broccoli bits, cavorting on the carrots and climbing in the crevasses of kale.
Since I know that aphids cannot overwinter in their adult form (only as eggs), I hoped that the overnight forecast of below-freezing temperatures would solve my problem. Out went the vegetables for a cold sleepover in the car. In the morning, my produce came back into the house, and after warming up a bit, those dead-looking aphids began to move again. No luck with the plan to freeze them off of the food. My next trick was to submerge them in warm water, another aphid-removing tip, as was soaking my rations in salt solution or in water with a drop of fragrance-free dish detergent. After my exhaustive efforts, I still found a few of these non-flying fiends on my food. I shouldn’t be surprised; aphids have been thwarting farmers (and clearly eaters, too) for centuries, with exceptional resilience and survival-assuring habits and life cycle.
Their prolific procreation results from the fecundity of the female aphid. One single female can produce millions of descendents each per year. Strangely enough, most of those offspring are also female.
Aphids are the amazons of the insect world. They practice parthenogenesis, which is birthing live young without mating. Female offspring only are produced, generation after generation, from the spring through late summer. Finally, as winter approaches, males are produced during the next-to-last generation of offspring. They mate with females, who then lay eggs that will overwinter, surviving the harsh climate. These eggs hatch in the spring and, again, not produce any males throughout the fair-weather generations, until fall.
This behavior effectively assures the success of aphids. These insects will likely continue to frustrate farmers and begrudge gardeners all in an effort to be my (and your) guests at many more meals to come.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.