There is a tendency for people when they do think of aphids, to see them as existing in large unsightly aggregations, oozing sticky honeydew, surrounded by their shed skins and living in positively slum-like conditions. The bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi, the black bean aphid, Aphis fabae, the Poa-feeding aphid, Utamphorophora humboldti and the beech wooly aphid, Phyllaphis fagi, being notable examples.
Whilst this may be true for many pest aphid species, it is far from true for the group as a whole. Yes they may occur in aggregations, but quite often, they look very neat and tidy and well-behaved.
Some aphid species lead quite solitary lives and you often only find them in ones and twos, if at all, e.g. Monaphis antennata. There is one aphid species, however, that manages to have it both ways, living surrounded by its friends and relatives but managing to exist in splendid isolation at the same time. The exemplar of this phenomenon is the sycamore aphid, Drepanosiphum platanoidis, which exhibits a behaviour termed ‘spaced-out gregariousness’, a term coined by John Kennedy and colleagues in 1967, although the phenomenon was
described and measured by Tony Dixon a few years earlier. Effectively, the aphids like to be in a crowd but to have their own personal space. As proof of this, when the numbers of aphids on a leaf are low, say two to three, they will, instead of spreading out across the leaf, still show the same behaviour, i.e. get to within 2-3 millimetres distance of each other.
Even more extraordinary is when a predator such as a ladybird or lacewing larvae finds its way on to a crowded leaf; the sycamore aphids do a great imitation of the parting of the Red Sea, but still without touching each other and keeping their regulation distance apart. Those finding themselves at the edge, either take wing or move to the upper surface of the leaf. Although a video of this exists somewhere I have been unable to find it so you will have to take my word for it. If anyone does come across the footage please let me know.
Yet another reason to love aphids.
Dixon, A.F.G. (1963) Reproductive activity of the sycamore aphid, Drepanosiphum platanoides (Schr) (Hemiptera, Aphididae). Journal of Animal Ecology, 32, 33-48.
Kennedy, J.S., Crawley, L., & McLaren, A.D. (1967) Spaced-out gregariousness in sycamore aphids Drepanosiphum platanoides (Schrank) (Hemiptera, Callaphididae). Journal of Animal Ecology, 36, 147-170.
You may have noticed that the two references cited spell the species name of the sycamore aphid as platanoides, It is in fact correctly spelt platanoidis. To their embarrassment both John Kennedy and Tony Dixon got it wrong. It wasn’t until 1978, when a very brave (possibly helped by conference alcohol consumption) PhD student (David Mercer) of Tony Dixon’s pointed this out, that the error was noticed and corrected 😉
Mercer, D.R. (1979) Flight Behaviour of the Sycamore Aphid, Drepanosiphum platanoidis Schr. Ph.D Thesis, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK.