Not all aphids are vegans

Typically we think of aphids as plant pests, existing solely on a diet of plant sap that they obtain by tapping into the phloem tubes of plants, using their specially adapted piercing mouthparts (stylets). These when viewed externally,  when the aphid is feeding on the plant, look fairly straightforward as in this beautiful photograph of the Oleander aphid, Aphis nerii, from Lisa Sell’s great blog site Zen Through a Lens

aphis nerii Stylet

The stylets can, however, actually take a rather convoluted route to their destination .

aphid mouthparts

Adapted from Roger Blackman (1974).

This is, however, not the whole story.  Some years ago when I was a PhD student, I was looking after a friend’s pea aphid (Acythrosiphon pisum) culture, whilst he was on holiday.  One day, whilst adding new pea plants to the cages, I became aware of a sharp stinging sensation on my wrist.  Looking down I was somewhat surprised to find that I was being probed by an aphid.  After my initial shock I decided that the aphid had been confused by the pea plant scent on my hands and decided that I was a suitable host plant to investigate.  The incident was not repeated although the story has become a feature of my lectures on aphid biology.  Many years later, one of my PhD students who was working on the Asian ladybird, Harmonia axyridis,  which she used to feed on pea aphids, came and asked me if I had ever heard of aphids eating each other as she had noticed that some of the juvenile pea aphids appeared to be feeding on some of the adults.

Pea aphid attack

My response was in the negative, but I said I would do a bit of research on the subject for her.  To my surprise, I found a short note (Banks et al., 1968), where the authors described not only incidents of aphids acting as cannibals and feeding on each other,  but also of aphids acting as predators and feeding on the eggs of ladybirds and lacewings, a reverse of the normal situation.   They also described an even more interesting report of what might have been biological control of  a plant pest by another plant pest – in this case hop feeding mites were apparently being eaten by aphids, unfortunately not names so I was unable to follow it up.  One of the authors also reported seeing many incidents of cannibalism by the aphid Megoura viciae, during some of his experiments.   They also noted that there was a report of an aphid species that was capable of causing swellings and rashes on people in what is now Taiwan.  I tracked the paper down (Takahashi, 1930) and had it translated by a PhD student and the paper was indeed entitled An Aphid that Bites People.  Apparently the gall forming aphid, Ceratoglyphnia (Astegopteryx) styracicola, (pictured below alongside the gall)

Ceratoglyphnia styracicolaCeratoglyphnia styracicola gall

is well-known to attack people who stand or sit underneath the snowbell tree, Styrax suberifolium, which incidentally has rather nice flowers.


The result of being ‘bitten’ by the aphid is a red swelling that disappears after an hour or so, but leaves a very itchy rash that can persist for two to three days.  In fact this phenomenon is so common that people avoid passing underneath infested trees.

So those of you who thought that only your house plants were in danger from an aphid attack better watch out!

Aoki, S. & Kurosu, U. (2010) A review of the biology of Cerataphidini (Hemiptera, Aphididae, Hormaphidinae), focusing mainly on their life cycles, gall formation, and soldiers. Psyche

Banks, C.J., MaCaulay, E.D.M. & Holman, J.  (1968), Cannibalism and predation by aphids.  Nature, 218, 491

Blackman. R. L. (1974)  Aphids, Ginn & Co.

Takahashi, R. (1930) An aphid that bites people.  Transactions of the Natural History Society of Formosa, 20, 43-44.


Post script


And new in 2015, here is an aphid that sucks the blood (haemolymph) from ant larva!  Aren’t aphids wonderful?



Filed under Aphidology, Aphids

34 responses to “Not all aphids are vegans

  1. Pingback: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Aphid! | Don't Forget the Roundabouts

  2. Mauro Mandrioli

    Ops… when I was a student, once a lab collegue working with me on aphids told me that she had a rash due to aphids and she was asking for aphid bites. I told her that it was impossible since she wasn’t a plant, but now I’m not sure 😀


    • Well now you will have to tell her that she may indeed have been mistaken for a plant 😉


    • Jose Julian

      I arrived here looking out for info about aphid bites. I had always considered aphids as slow, vulnerable insects. I started to clean off of them, one of my plants, taking a small stick I was removing them from the leaves, then I noted that they had strategies for the attack, some of them relatively quickly descended to the stem of the plant. I also noted that some groups of aphids were guarded by a flying adult aphid. When I was cleaning one of the leaves, the adult aphid that was taking care of its crew flew towards me and bited me, the sensation was more like a mosquito bite. I was kinda shocked, I never thought these little creatures were capable of attacking people in self defense.


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  5. sir im a college student. my question is that why do they come to our house? i mean that they feed on phloem tissue so why are they found in our homes?


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  9. Sarah

    My eggplants were highly infested with green aphids and i was trying to cut all the leaves off to get rid of them. In the process i got bitten in several places including by bellybutton…which has resulted in a extremely itchy and mildly oozy redness.


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  11. Dane

    Tiny black aphids. Unusual environment, atypical N American diet… Lethargic but do bite humans. Would like to share pics, discuss further, you may find my aphid predicament interesting.


  12. While removing white fluffy aphids on my potted succulent pigface creeper, I swear I felt a tiny sharp stab in my thumb as I removed one particularly fat one, which prompted me to google this topic.

    Liked by 1 person

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  14. Govana Espinos Martinez

    I was cutting down branches that have curl leaves and house aphids their honeydew is making a mess of my car so I couldn’t wait any longer I pulled up a later grabbed the shears and started cutting. Well my impatience cost it’s been 48 hours and the lack of proper clothing I have a sleeves of itchiness and bumps from where the aphids fell uncovered harms and shoulders (i was wearing a tank top). I did not feel the aphids bitting just crawling and being super sticky fro their honeydew. Took a shower right after I finished the job and in twelve hours I was scratching in my sleep that’s how itchy it got. So I hope by 72 hours this itchiness is gone.


  15. Barbara

    The beauty of these modern times is having video cameras readily available. So now a student can film the aphids being cannibalistic and show the clip to her professor instead of him not taking her word and needing to find an existing paper. I wonder how many discoveries were poo pooed because the witness didn’t have the proper credentials or there was not an existing paper by somebody with the proper credentials.


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  18. Naki Yeboah

    I went tearing oranges and I woke up with red ugly itchy swellings all over my hands and skin. I didn’t know they were aphids initially. Is there any medication I can use to stop the itch?


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  24. Natalie

    My name is Natalie
    A few months ago I noticed I had no hairs on my arms I started scratching them and out came the weirdest matter inc. Hair, leaves,lint,tiny rock like things and even a tiny feather. I then noticed my husband and children had a similar thing after some research I assumed it was scabies and treated it with permithrin cream only to flair up my arms with a intensely itchy ulcerative sore, these sores have taken over my arms and legs and after several doctors visits in which stromectol was given, the amount of stuff that started coming out of my arms was like bits of dead beetle so went to dermatologists to no avail then skin institute of Australia whom thought it maybe bird mite. In the last few weeks I have been washing myself with pyrethrin foam and as a result I’ve had multiple half alive bugs popping out of my skin when I rub them. My husband rang CSIRO whom put him onto an anthropologist who has identified these bugs as an aphid. I am in shock and I wondered whether anyone else has had a similar thing happen?


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