People don’t like aphid, but they have a remarkable life cycle and fascinating history.
So before you look down upon the lowly aphid read on…
The Manna from Heaven that the Israelites ate while strolling through the desert might well have been honeydew from aphids or other insects!
Aphids produce a sweet sticky substance called honey dew, if you don’t believe me, go feel the plants where they have been… sticky.
If you are still skeptical, lick your fingers (euee gross.) In the ancient Oaks and Olives, large quantities of honey dew would freeze in the night. When the sun arose and warmed the frozen dew…, bonk!
Manna, right on your noggin! It’s a wonder that the Jews didn’t come up with the idea of gravity. (Was Newton Jewish?)
Man” is the common Arabic name for aphids, and man es simma (the “manna of heaven”) for honeydew.
In the Mideast, people still collect the sweet excretions (which is a nice word for phoo) of scale insects that feed on tamarisk. They call it “man” and make halva out of it. (Lest we feel superior in our culinary habits, a large portion of bee honey is actually honeydew harvested from the surface of plants.)
Aphids pierce the phloem tubes of plants with their sharp mouthparts and suck out the sugary goodies in transit there. (Phloem is the tube that transports food, mostly sugar to all parts of the plant. Xylem transports water.)
Aphids process this food and excrete drops (honeydew) rich in sugars, free amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), proteins, minerals and vitamins. Move over Whole Foods!
Some aphids shoot this waste away from their bodies, but other species of aphids have learned to excrete a drop on from their rear end when an ant taps them with foreleg or antennae. Then the ant eats it (and you thought humans were kinky!) Later, the ant will regurgitate part of the honeydew for it’s nest mates.
You could try this if you’re not worried about what the neighbors might think.
Sometimes aphids are called “ant cows”.
Ants like honeydew as much as the Israelites did. Through the winter, some ants take aphid eggs down into their colonies to protect them, bringing them up to graze in the springtime. If you look closely, you may see small cowboy hats on the ants… or maybe not.
Each aphid species has its own life cycle, but there are some features uniting nearly all of them.
One feature most species share is that they are incredibly prolific, worse than rabbits!
Wingless adult female aphids can produce 50 to 100 offspring. A newly born aphid becomes a reproducing adult within about a week and then can produce up to 5 offspring per day for up to 30 days!
If all the descendants of a single aphid survived the summer and were arranged four abreast, their line would exceed the circumference of the earth at the equator! Now that’s a lot of honeydew! Dentists LOVE them.
Even more amazing is that most of this reproduction takes place without the interference of males!
This is known as parthenogenesis. (From the Greek parthenos, “virgin”, + genesis, “creation”.)
When mother aphids reproduce parthenogenetically, instead of laying eggs they give birth directly to smaller editions of themselves. An “average” aphid life cycle goes a little something like this: (stop me if you’ve heard this one.)
In spring, an egg hatches, producing a wingless female aphid who almost immediately begins parthenogenetically producing new wingless females. Generation follows generation of wingless females; I think I saw one wearing “an aphid without a male is like a fish without a bicycle” tee shirt. Then hot weather arrives, or maybe the plant they are living on dies, some of the females grow wings and fly off. I wish I could do that!
This new generation of female winged aphid find a plant host of a completely different species from that on which their spring generations have developed.
Typically, when it’s time to move back to the plant species on which aphid winters, (kind of like wintering in the Hamptons) some aphids develop into males.
Sexual reproduction takes place, but apparently, it’s nothing to write home about because when the eggs hatch (in the spring) there are no males in sight.
Try explaining that in Spanish! The kids take this in stride.
But the dads don’t like it. One said, “Thank God I’m not an aphid.”
Usually parthenogenesis is followed by a brief bout of sexual reproduction just to keep the gene pool fresh.