Of Aphids and Ants

I find that with our agricultural projects, we need to prioritize, as there are only so many hours in the day and hands on deck, so certain things get neglected. While we were away for my sisters wedding, which was the worst possible timing for beginning farmers, my vegetable plot was at the bottom of the list. It didn’t help that the weather was not cooperating. Last April, we had a freak snowstorm and this April, we had a freak heat wave.

When I returned the plot looked dismal and my hopes were bleak. I needed to trellis and thin some peas that were left to their own devices and then I noticed the aphids. The undersides of the leaves had these small grayish insects. Their numbers were not so significant on the peas, so I removed the affected leaves and would spray with neem oil to help control the problem.
After the peas, I noticed that my chard plants were stunted and the leaves shriveled and curly, there were a huge number of ants swarming on the leaves… and on the underside I found a huge infestation of aphids. It seems that the ants and the aphids have a mutually beneficial relationship. The aphids produce a sticky sweet substance called “honeydew”, which the ants love, but this relationship goes far deeper. There are a certain type of ants, the “aphid farmer ant” hids, they protect them and their eggs by hiding them in their colony and caring for them over the winter.

There is also another relationship that the ants have, which is with a variety of butterfly from the lycaenidae family. When we were in the field, we were surrounded by these beautiful blueish/purple butterflies. They were so friendly; landing on my fingers and clothes… I felt like Snow White… Unbeknownst to the aphids, the ants also protect the larvae of this butterfly, which feasts on aphids among other things.

Next to the chard plants are my Florence fennel, they too were plagued with aphids and ants, but unlike the chard, the fennel plants were also covered in ladybugs.

It was at this point, I felt confident that these plants will pull through. An adult ladybug can eat over 5000 aphids in their lifetime, yet ants are fierce protectors, so it is literally a ecosystem battle going on in my garden.

While systematically inspecting all of the fennel fronds, I see another surprise… they looked like tiny yellow eggs and I just threw my hands in the air convinced that nature was against me. I did a quick Google search and identified these little yellow dots, not as pests, but as my salvation… they were ladybug eggs, which can eat over 400 aphids in their growing phase… The number of eggs I found were really encouraging.

While researching solutions to my aphid problem, I realized that there is no one directional approach. Treating just the aphids is useless when there are millions of ants working to ensure their survival, but how do eradicate ants? I have devised a new strategy. Using peppermint to deter the ants and also use garlic to deter the aphids. I just hope it is not too late! My rocket/ arugula, which happened was in the middle of the battle was pest free… I guess the spicy pepper flavor is a bit too much for the aphids and ants!

How would I have done things differently?

  • No more trips during from the growing season, till everything is established!
  • Next year, I will make a garlic or hot pepper spray that will work as a preemptive repellant, early in the spring.
  • Plant more chives around the garden! Aphids hate garlic and chives!
  • Use peppermint oil around the rows and particularly near ant holes…
If you have any tips please share… my learning curve is steep, so I welcome and thoughts and suggestions!
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