Up Close: The Unfriendly Aphid

The enemy is Aphidoidea

Nature doesn’t care that you like your flowers whole and un-nibbled. Roses were meant to be eaten. And those seedlings that were going to become zucchinis, it matters not to Mother Nature. If you’ve placed the plant outdoors, it’s Hers for the taking.


Aphids can be black, grey, green or yellow. A single garden can play host to different species and they’ll all look a little different.


So how do you regain your ground when nature is leading the charge? First: Understand the enemy. Second: Know your allies. Finally: Fight back.


Friendly, but not your friend

Aphidoidea are a scourge. They are tiny, ovoid, life-sucking pests, wherever you find them. I can’t think of a single reason to like them—and I write this knowing that aphids have lovely, healthy, symbiotic relationships with some bees and ants.


See, aphids are messy little creatures. They drink all that sweet plant sap and excrete, from the ends of their GI tracts, a sticky substance called honeydew. You may have seen it powdering cars parked beneath infested trees.


That sweet honeydew oozing from their rectum is high in sugar. It is delicious and nutritious for juvenile ants and certain honeybees that produce forest honey (i.e. the honey made from honeydew).


Well, ants and honeybees be damned. Aphids are no friend to the gardener. Protected by their ant friends, they weaken plants, stunt new growth and scar leaves where they pierce the undersides to drink sap.

Where you’ll find them

Almost any plant, especially those with new growth, can play host to aphids. Strawberries and roses are particular favorites of our soft-bodied frenemies. Leaf vegetable, like kale and lettuce, are also common hosts.


You’ll find whole populations of aphids on the underside of leaves or along soft stems and new buds. They’ll pack themselves one on top of another, sometimes covered in a dusty powder, most likely their dried honeydew.


Be sure to check newly planted specimens on a regular basis. Veggie starts and young flowers are susceptible to damage, not only because they are almost entirely “new growth,” but because they are sometimes unknowing Trojan horses. Even the best growers occasionally get struck with a few aphids.


When you find a dusty cluster of aphids in your garden, you may find ants tending to their horde. Many common ant species have symbiotic relationships with aphids.


Ants will protect their dew-makers from intruders and hide them from sight while harvesting their liquid doo. Isn’t that neighborly of them? Keep your eyes peeled for a lot of ants. Even more aphids may be nearby.

aphid damage

Hand-to-hand combat

To rid yourself of aphids, squish them till they pop. A lot of people recommend “knocking them off” with water, but I like to know they’re dead when I’m done so I hand-squish them all.


If the infestation is too widespread but the plant is still worth saving, use a chemical solution that includes malathion or pyrethrin. Horticultural soap or neem oil work well too and use fewer chemicals.


For an earth-friendly anti-aphid recipe, grate two lemons and steep the pulp in water overnight. Filter through a sieve before mixing in equal parts clean water. Add two to four drops of rubbing alcohol. Using a spray bottle, wet the tops and bottoms of all the leaves and stems.


If the damage is too great, remove the entire plant and dispose of it far from the garden.

Your allies in the fight

You’re not alone in this. Ladybugs, ladybug larvae and lacewing larvae are all voracious aphid eaters. If you see them in your garden, rejoice and don’t squish!


Ever seen ladybug larvae? Some people say they look like alligators. If you squint hard and forget what alligators look like, then maybe? They’re soft-bodied, black and orange alligators with short heads and long tails.


If your aphid problem is bad, live ladybugs from McLendon Hardware can make the infestation their moveable feast. Simply release in the garden and let the predators eat, mate and repeat.


Some flowers help repel aphids. French marigold Tagetes patula and pot marigold Calendula are both heavily scented and have been shown to deter aphids. Plant a border to act as guard around roses.


Lastly, if you can’t beat them, join them. Plant a lure the aphids can’t refuse, and they may pass by your more beloved specimens on their way to a favorite snack. Nasturtium are a common “trap crop” for black aphids.

aphid close up

Making peace

A conflict management technique you may have heard of, “letting it go,” may help you in this situation.


Sometimes in establishing our delicate harmony with nature, we just have to release our anger when She gets the upper hand. Try a few different techniques, buy high-quality plants and if all else fails, make peace with the damage and try again next year.