Puzzling aphid patterns in my garden

nippstress - zone 5 NebraskaJune 10, 2014

Hi folks

I was out deadheading some roses that are finally blooming in this late warmup season, and I noticed an odd pattern in aphids in the yard. Normally I don't fuss much about aphids, since I like the notion of integrated pest management (also known as lazy gardening, in my case). I let the bugs duke it out among themselves, and in the long run the good guys usually win. I'll squish the aphids on rose buds and stems when I find them, but after the first flush really gets underway I don't see them any more and things seem to balance out.

This year, as I was deadheading I saw an absolute TON of aphids on the spent seedpods of the columbine that are everywhere in my yard. Those columbine are interspersed everywhere within all the beds, all of whom are packed with roses. As I checked, virtually every columbine seed pod was loaded with aphids and there were absolutely none I could find on any of the roses. Nada, zilch. We're talking columbine no more than 6 inches from the neighboring roses, and given my experience with aphids that kind of distance is no problem to cross if they're hungry. Besides, how did they get to all the columbine in my yard if they couldn't travel?

I'm totally thrilled, since I don't care what they do to the seed pods and there's virtually no damage they could do that would matter there. I'm also puzzled, though, since I thought aphids liked the juicy growing matter of the buds, so why would they pick nasty dry seed pods as a preference? Is there some chemical in columbines that attract aphids as a trap crop to keep them away from the roses? Could this be related to the relatively low ladybug population I've noted after this cold winter, compared to previous years? I didn't notice any on the blooms themselves of the columbines, so they didn't destroy that aspect of the garden. If this works, I'm planting a lot more columbine, not that this is a hardship!

Any ideas to explain this? I knew aphids were stupid, but I didn't know they were this stupid. Not that I'm complaining of course...


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Hi Cynthia, Bugs usually have a fairly narrow window of light, heat and humidity levels they're comfortable enduring. It's quite possible the aphids liked the temperature, air movement and humidity down lower on the columbine than they did up on the rose tips. I see this kind of thing frequently with aphids and other insects. It will be hot, dry and sunny in most of the garden, but in a protected spot where the air is more still, cooler and damper, I'll find aphids and/or saw fly, even up where saw fly don't live (supposedly). While they probably would prefer the rose juice, it could easily be too hot, too dry or too breezy for their comfort. Kim

    Bookmark   June 10, 2014 at 8:33PM
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michaelg(7a NC Mts)

Very interesting! I never noticed that. But could the stickiness of columbine pods be honeydew from aphids?

Different species of aphids have different hosts. For example there is a blackish cabbage aphid, and a large red aphid that likes tomatoes. The main rose pest here is the peach aphid.

    Bookmark   June 11, 2014 at 9:50AM
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jim1961 Zone 6a Central Pa.

That's what I was wondering could it be a different species of aphids that prefers columbine over roses...?
That was my first thought after reading the original post...

    Bookmark   June 11, 2014 at 11:16AM
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I'm not surprised there are different species of the little vermin with specific food hosts. There are for diseases and parasites, so why not? I'd think it highly likely part of the stickiness might be honeydew, though I remember finding the columbine seed heads being sticky on their own. It's been some years since I've grown any as they were wonderfully suitable for Newhall and completely unsuitable for more "tropical" Encino. For quite a few years, I collected different types of columbine for that garden. Quite a few were sticky, as if it helped the seeds to adhere to animals (and my hands), allowing them to travel. But most things infested with aphids tend to be quite sticky, too, so it could help. Kim

    Bookmark   June 11, 2014 at 11:53AM
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nippstress - zone 5 Nebraska

Thanks for the help problem solving guys! I did have to chuckle a bit at your California gauge of how tall roses should be by this time of year, Kim, given the assumption of different height and air patterns with the columbine. Sadly, after this brutal winter nothing but the climbers are blooming at anything above knee height after being pruned to the ground, which puts them at exactly the same height (and presumably same air patterns) as the columbine pods.

I tend to like the theory of the plant-specific type of aphids going on here, particularly since it's so all or none on the plants. These are definitely the actively crawling (green colored) aphids, not just the honeydew residue, though I'm sure stickiness has something to do with them staying put for now.

WHICH of course raises another question in my ongoing puzzled brain - are there aphid-species-specific predators then? Are the peach aphids tastier than these "columbine aphids"? If not, then what's up with my usual ladybugs and other good guys? The columbine infestation is heavier than I usually notice for the first flush of roses, and this level of aphid swarm would definitely get my attention if it was on my roses. Presumably the predator level has to rise to the level of the food to be consumed, but it's definitely a greater imbalance this year than I've ever seen. As I've mentioned, I've seen fewer ladybugs this spring than usual, though plenty of other assorted bugs, and I was wondering if the harsh winter cut the usual spring population back. Usually they're crawling out of the mulch as soon as I pull it back from the roses, and invading the house all spring, but this year I saw none in the mulch and only one in the house. I'm sure they have some dormant eggs that will hatch eventually, but the inquiring side of my brain that is no longer consumed with rose planting is pondering the other half of this equation.

It's interesting to know that the peach aphid is the culprit for roses, Michael. OK, one more curious question on that account - I recently planted a peach tree in my yard, which is a good 4 years from blooming and even further from setting fruit. Still, once it does bloom, would you guess that having the roses to attract the peach aphid hurts the peach prospects or helps because it also attracts the predators? Being mostly organic (aka lazy), I'm unlikely to do anything about it unless it gets particularly bad, just curious.


    Bookmark   June 11, 2014 at 4:29PM
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Predators usually lag behind pests. We'll have a particularly wet winter and the following spring the pests are legion. They respond seemingly immediately to the increase in resources (food). The predators lag behind a season or two, but eventually catch up. I'd bet your lady bugs were either harder hit by the conditions or are slower to respond to the improving conditions, as if to naturally make sure there is ample food supply before they do their things. Of course not "consciously" but by development. Kim

    Bookmark   June 11, 2014 at 4:38PM
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