Given that aphids are commonly known as green-fly or black-fly, it might be presumed that all aphids are capable of flight. Although this is almost certainly universal at the species level (but see Post script) it is not true within a species. As I have described in an earlier post aphids are possessed of extremely complex and fascinating (to me at least) life cycles. Depending on the species, either most stages of the life cycle are winged (alate) as adults, e.g. the sycamore aphid Drepanoisphum platanoidis
I couldn’t resist showing you this beautiful picture of an adult sycamore aphid borrowed from the best aphid web site that I know of (see http://influentialpoints.com/Gallery/Drepanosiphum_platanoidis_common_sycamore_aphids.htm)
Other aphid species, such as my favourite, the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi, only produce alate morphs at specific times of year or in response to changes in host plant quality or crowding.
Winged (alate) and non-winged (apterous) morphs of Rhopalosiphum padi.
In species such as the sycamore aphid, the only apterous morph tends to be the sexual female or ovipara, which has no need to disperse and after mating lives only long enough to develop and lay its eggs on the bark of sycamore trees.
Ovipara of the sycamore aphid searching for an oviposition site
In those species such as the bird cherry-oat aphid, the winged forms are very different from the non-winged forms, not just in terms of their wings but in their physiology, behaviour and life history traits (Dixon, 1998). The role of the winged morphs is to find new host plants and to start new colonies. They have long antenna, long legs and well-developed and many, sensory organs (rhinaria). They are the dispersal stage, or in the case of winged males, the mate seekers. They respond more readily to host odours; they need to be able to find new host plants at a suitable physiological stage and preferably free of natural enemies. A well-developed olfactory system is thus called for.
If you cut them open (preferably anaesthetizing them first), and remove their ovaries, you will find that they have ovarioles with only a few embryos in each chain and that most of the embryos are not mature i.e. without eye spots. In addition, if you cut open a number of individuals from the same clone you will find that they will not all have the same number of ovarioles. For example, the alate exules (winged forms produced on the secondary host plants )of Rhoaplosiphum padi, the number of ovarioles can range from four to ten (Wellings et al, 1980). This variability of ovariole number in the dispersal morphs of aphids that spend much of their life cycle on ephemeral host plants is quite common (Leather et al 1988). So why do so many aphid species have variable numbers of ovarioles in their alate morphs?
Shaw (1970), showed that there appeared to be three types of black bean aphid (Aphis fabae) alate exules; migrants, those that flew before depositing nymphs, flyers, those that deposited a few nymphs before flying, and non-flyers, those that stayed and reproduced on their host plant. He postulated that this was an adaptation in response to host quality, the worse state the plant was in the more likely the migrant morph would be produced. Many years later Keith Walters and Tony Dixon (Walters & Dixon, 1983) were able to show that there was a very strong relationship between reproductive investment (number of ovarioles) and flight willingness and ability. The more ovarioles an aphid had, the less likely it was to want to take off and fly, and in addition those with more ovarioles could not fly for as long or as far as those with fewer.
In other words a trade-off between fecundity and migration. As long distance aphid migration is very costly (very few survive, Ward et al, 1998) it makes sense to have members of your clone spreading the load (risk), from short-distance hops (trivial flights), with the chance that the next door plant might be just as bad as the one left behind and within easy reach of natural enemies, but with a higher chance of survival and reproduction, to long distance migratory flights, with the reduced probability of finding a host plant but with the chance that it will be high in nutrition and low in natural enemies.
What clever beasts aphids are 😉
Dixon, A.F.G. (1998) Aphid Ecology, Second edn. Chapman & Hall, London.
Leather, S.R., Wellings, P.W., & Walters, K.F.A. (1988) Variation in ovariole number within the Aphidoidea. Journal of Natural History, 22, 381-393.
Shaw, M.J.P. (1970) Effects of population density on the alienicolae of Aphis fabae Scop.II The effects of crowding on the expression of migratory urge among alatae in the laboratory. Annals of Applied Biology, 65, 197-203.
Walters, K.F.A. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1983) Migratory urge and reproductive investment in aphids: variation within clones. Oecologia, 58, 70-75.
Ward, S.A., Leather, S.R., Pickup, J., & Harrington, R. (1998) Mortality during dispersal and the cost of host-specificity in parasites: how many aphids find hosts? Journal of Animal Ecology, 67, 763-773.
Wellings, P.W., Leather , S.R., & Dixon, A.F.G. (1980) Seasonal variation in reproductive potential: a programmed feature of aphid life cycles. Journal of Animal Ecology, 49, 975-985.
It is possible that there are some aphids that never fly – Aphids from the genus Stomaphis have incredibly long mouthparts (they all feed through tree bark), and as far as I can tell from perusal of
Roger Blackman and Vic Eastop’s monumental work, alate morphs have never been described (or seen) and even males are apterous.
Blackman, R.L. & Eastop, V.F. (1994) Aphids on the World’s Trees. CABI, Wallingford.
Post post script
For a very detailed and thoughtful review of the ‘decisions’ and costs involved in aphid reproductive and dispersal biology see Ward, S.A. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1984) Spreading the risk, and the evolution of mixed strategies: seasonal variation in aphid reproductive strategies. Advances in Invertebrate Reproduction, 3, 367-386.