Category Archives: Aphids

Not all aphids are farmed by ants

One of the great things about working with aphids is that it gave me the chance to go back to my childhood entomological roots of playing with ants.  Most gardeners have had the experience when cruelly* running their finger and thumb down an aphid covered plant stem of finding their hand suddenly covered with ants.   As someone who has a very relaxed approach to aphids, I find the presence of ants on a plant a handy way of finding aphids, although sometimes the ants are there because of extra-floral nectaries.  So what exactly is going on when you find ants and aphids together?

It has long been known that some aphids are farmed or tended by some ant species.  According to Jones (1927) Goedart** was the first to describe the relationship scientifically (Goedart & Lister, 1685) and by the latter half of the 19th Century you can find illustrations such as the one below that appeared in Van Bruyssel’s fantastic foray into early science-communication.


An ant dairy maid coming to milk her aphids – their siphunculi and anuses are just visible if you look closely: cleverly made to look like cow heads (From Van Bruyssel, 1870)

The ant-aphid association is usually defined as a mutualism as the two species exist in a relationship in which each individual benefits from the activity of the other.  Just to confuse people however, the association is also sometimes termed trophobiosis*** (e.g. Oliver et al., 2008) which is a more symbiotic relationship.

The degree of dependence of the aphid on the ants varies from species to species.  Some aphids, especially those that live underground on plant roots, are unable to survive without their ant attendants (Pontin, 1978).   Pontin (1960) also reports seeing Lasius flavus workers licking aphid eggs which he suggests stops them from going mouldy as the licking removes fungal spores.  He also noted that those eggs that were not cared for in this way did not hatch.  Other aphids have a more facultative relationship, and are able to survive quite successfully without the help of their friendly neighbourhood ants.

We tend to think of aphids as soft squidgy defenceless things that are easy to squash.  To other insects however, they present a bit more of a challenge.  Aphids have structural and behavioural defences to keep them safe in the dangerous world of bug eat bug.  Alarm pheromones and dropping behaviour are commonly used by aphids to avoid meeting predators face to face (Dixon, 1958a).    Aphis also have a number of physical defences.  Their spihunculi (cornicles) can produce a quickly hardening wax to gum up ladybird jaws (Dixon, 1958b).  Other aphid species cover themselves with dense waxy coats that make them less palatable or accessible to natural enemies (Mueller et al., 1992).  Other aphids have thick skins (heavily sclerotized) and what entomologists term saltatorial leg modification; long legs to you and me, and so able to give a ladybird or other opportunistic insect predator a good kicking (Villagra et al., 2002).  These characteristics, which are all costly, are reduced or absent in aphids that are frequently associated with ants (Way, 1963) as presumably with ant bodyguards in attendance, there is no need for the aphids to invest in extra anti-predator defences.


Note also the shortened siphunculi in Periphyllus testudinaceus and the hairier bottom, when compared with the leggy, and arguably, prettier Drepanosihpum platanoidis.

Apart from reducing their defensive armoury, those aphids that are obligately ant attended have a specially adapted rear end, essentially a hairy bottom.  This is more scientifically known as the trophobiotic organ.   The trophobiotic organ is an enlarged anal plate surrounded by special hairs that acts as a collection and storage device that allows the aphid to accumulate honeydew ready for the ants to remove at their leisure.


Three different trophobiotic organs, some hairier than others – after Heie (1980)


A real live view of the “trophobiotic organ” of Tetraneura ulmi (from the fantastic Influential Points website –

Non-ant attended aphids without the trophobiotic organ, deposit their honeydew directly on to the leaf surface or on the ground, or if you are unlucky enough to park under an aphid infested tree, on to your car 🙂  Ants lick and collect sycamore aphid, Drepanosiphum platanoidis honeydew from leaves, but not directly from the aphids, which they do do from the maple aphid, Periphyllus testudinaceus, which also lives on sycamore trees P. testudinaceus (Pontin, 1958).

So what’s in it for the ants?  Why should they bother looking after aphids, even in some cases, keeping aphid eggs in their nests over the winter (Pontin, 1960)? The obvious answer is the honeydew that the aphids produce as a by-product of feeding on phloem sap. The amount of material that an aphid can remove from a plant is quite astounding.  A large willow aphid (Tuberolacnhus salignus) adult can sucks up the equivalent of 4 mg sucrose per day Mittler (1958) , which is equivalent to the photosynthetic product of one to two leaves per day.  Admittedly, they are large aphids and not ant attended****, but even an aphid half their size passes a lot of plant sap through their digestive systems.  Honeydew is not just sugar but is a mixture of free amino acids and amides, proteins, mineral and B-vitamins, so all in all, quite a useful food source for the ants (Way, 1963).  All aphids produce honeydew but not all aphids are ant attended and as I pointed out earlier, not all ants attend aphids.  Our research suggests that 41% of ant genera have trophobiotic species, but these are not equally distributed among ant families.  Some ant sub-families, for example the Fomicinae,  specilaise in ant attendance,  whereas in other ant families such as the Ecitoninae, aphids are used only as prey and the honeydew is gathered from plant and ground surfaces (Oliver et al., 2008).  The ant species that are most likely to develop mutualistic relationship with aphids appear to be those that live in trees, have large colonies, are able to exploit disturbed habitats and are dominant or invasive species (Oliver et al., 2008).

Those ants that do tend aphids don’t just protect them from predators and other natural enemies. They want to maximise the return for their investment. The black bean aphid, Aphis fabae, which is often tended by Lasius niger, has its tendency to produced forms reduced by the ants, thus making sure that the aphids are around longer to provide food for them (El-Ziady & Kennedy, 1956).  The ant Lasius fuliginosus transports young Stomaphis quercus aphids to parts of the tree with the best honeydew production (Goidanich, 1959) and Lasius niger goes one step further, moving individuals of the aphid Pterocomma salicis, to better quality willow trees (Collins & Leather, 2002).  Lasius niger seems to have a propensity for moving bugs about, they have also been seen moving coccids from dying clover roots to nearby living ones (Hough, 1922).

In the mid-1970s John Whittaker and his student, Gary Skinner, set up a study to examine the interactions between the wood ant, Formica rufa and the various insect herbivores feeding on the sycamore trees in Cringlebarrow Wood, Lancashire.  They excluded some ants from some of the aphid infested branches and allowed them access to others on the same trees and also looked at trees that were foraged by ants and those that weren’t.  They found that F. rufa was a heavy predator of the sycamore aphid, D. platanoidis, but tended the maple aphid,  P. testudinaceus (a novel observation for that particular ant-aphid interaction).  Ant excluded colonies of P. testudinaceus decreased, whereas D. platanoidis did not, but on those branches where ants were able to access the aphids, the reverse pattern was seen (Skinner & Whittaker, 1981).

The presence of thriving aphid colonies in the neighbourhood of ant nests and in some cases aphid colonies only exist where there are ant nests nearby (Hopkins & Thacker, 1999), has made some people wonder if aphids actively look for ant partners (Fischer et al., 2015).  There is, however, no evidence that aphids look for ant partners, rather the fact that wing production is reduced in the presence of tending ants, means that aphid colonies can accumulate around and close to ant nests (Fischer et al., 2015a).

That doesn’t mean that the aphids only rely on honeydew production to guarantee the presence of their ant bodyguards. The aphid Stomaphis yanonis, which like other


Stomaphis aceris, also ant attended.  Imagine trying to drag that mouth part out of a tree trunk quickly 🙂

Stomaphis species, has giant mouthparts, and so needs plenty of time to remove its mouthparts safely definitely needs ant protection to cover its back when involved in the delicate operation of stylet unplugging. In this case, it turns out that the aphids smell like that ants, they have cuticular hydrocarbons that resemble those of their ant protector Lasius fuji and thus encourages the ants to treat them as their own (Endo & Itino (2013).  Earlier work on the ant-attended tree-dwelling aphids, Lachnus tropicalis and Myzocallis kuricola, in Japan showed that the ant Lasius niger preyed on aphids that had not been attended by nest mates, but tended those that had been previously tended (Sakata 1994).  This too would indicate the presence of some sort of chemical marker or brand.

To add support to this, just over twenty years ago (1996), I supervised an undergraduate student Arran Frood*****.   He worked with the maple aphid, and the ants L. niger and L. fulginosus.  Aphids on ant-attended sycamore trees were washed with diluted acetone or water.   Those that had been washed with acetone were predated more than unwashed aphids suggesting that It was like washing off the colony specific pheromone marker. In support of this hypothesis, Arran found that predation would also increase if he swapped a twig full of aphids between colonies, but not from one part of the colony to another. It also worked between the two ant species, Lasius niger and L. fuliginosus, so it seems like the ants have a colony specific marker on their aphids.  We should really have written this up for publication.

Although aphids do not actively seek ant partners, they may compete with each other to retain the services of their ant bodyguards by producing more honeydew (Addicott, 1978).  There is evidence that ants make their decisions of whether to predate or tend aphids by monitoring honeydew production and choose to prey on aphids in colonies that produce less honeydew (Sakata, 1995).  Recent work has also shown that the honeydew of the black bean aphid, Aphis fabae is often colonised by the bacterium Staphylococcus xylosus. Honeydew so infected produces a bouquet of volatile compounds that are attractive to the ant L. niger thus increasing the cahnces of the aphids being ant-attended (Fischer et al., 2015b).  This adds yet another layer of complexity to the already complicated mutualistic life style that aphids have adopted.

And finally, you may remember me writing about the wonderful colour variations seen in some aphid species and how this could be modified by their symbionts. In another twist, it seems that ants may have a say in this too, albeit at a colony level rather than at the clonal level.  The improbably named Mugwort aphid, Macrosiphoniella yomogicola  which is obligately ant-attended by the ant L. japonicus, is found in  colonies that are typically 65% green 35% red (Watanabe et al. 2016).  The question Watanabe and his colleagues asked is why do ants like this colour balance? One possibility is that red and green aphids have slightly different effects on the mugwort plants where they feed. Though green aphids produce more honeydew, red aphids seem to prevent the mugwort from flowering. Given that aphid colonies on a flowering mugwort go extinct, ants looking to maintain an aphid herd for more than a year might see an advantage to keeping reds around to guarantee a long-term food supply from their green sisters.

Aren’t insects wonderful?



Addicott, J.F. (1978) Competition for mutualists: aphids and ants.  Canadian Journal of Zoology, 56, 2093-2096.

Carroll, C.R. & Janzen, D.H. (1973) Ecology of foraging by ants.  Annual Review of Ecology & Systematics, 4, 231-257

Collins, C.M. & Leather, S.R. (2002) Ant-mediated dispersal of the black willow aphid Pterocomma salicis L.; does the ant Lasius niger L. judge aphid-host quality?  Ecological Entomology, 27, 238-241.

Dixon, A.F.G. (1958a) The escape responses shown by certain aphids to the presence of the coccinellid Adalia decempunctata (L.). Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society London, 110, 319-334.

Dixon, A.F.G. (1958b) The protective function of the siphunculi of the nettle aphid, Microlophium evansi (Theob.). Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, 94, 8.

El-Ziady, S. & Kenendy, J.S. (1956) Beneficial effects of the common garden ant, Lasius niger L., on the black bean aphid, Aphis fabae Scopoli.  Proceedings of the Royal Entomological Society London (A), 31, 61-65

Endo, S. & Itino, T. (2012) The aphid-tending ant Lasius fuji exhibits reduced aggression toward aphids marked with ant cuticular hydrocarbons.  Research on Population Ecology, 54, 405-410.

Endo, S. & Itino, T. (2013) Myrmecophilus aphids produce cuticular hydrocarbons that resemble those of their tending ants.  Population Ecology, 55, 27-34.

Fischer, C.Y., Vanderplanck, M., Lognay, G.C., Detrain, C. & Verheggen, F.J. (2015a) Do aphids actively search for ant partner?  Insect Science, 22, 283-288.

Fischer, C.Y., Lognay, G.C., Detrain, C., Heil, M., Sabri, A., Thonart, P., Haubruge, E., & Verheggen, F.J. (2015) Bacteria may enhance species-association in an ant-aphid mutualistic relationship. Chemoecology, 25, 223-232.

Goidanich, A.  (1959) Le migrazioni coatte mirmecogene dello Stomaphis quercus Linnaeus, afido olociciclio monoico omotopo. Bollettino dell’Istituto di Entomologia della Università degli Studi di Bologna, 23, 93-131.

Goedart, J. & Lister, M. (1685) De Insectis, in Methodum Redactus; cum Notularum Additione. [Metamorphosis Naturalis] Smith, London.

Heie, O. (1980)  The Aphdioidea (Hemiptera) of Fennoscandia and Denmark. 1. Fauna Entomologica Scandinavica 9.Scandinavian Science Press, Klampenborg, Denmark.

Hough, W.S (1922) Observations on two mealy bugs Trionymus tritolii Forbes and Pseudococcus maritimus Ehrh. Entomologist’s News, 33, 1 7 1-76.

Hopkins, G.W. & Thacker, J.I. (1999) Ants and habitat specificity in aphids. Journal of Insect Conservation, 3, 25-31.

Jones, C.R. (1927) Ants and Their Relation to Aphids.  PhD Thesis, Iowa State College, USA.

Mittler, T.E. (1958a) Studies on the feeding and nutrition of Tuberolachnus salignus (Gmelin) (Homoptera, Aphididae).  II. The nitrogen and sugar composition of ingested phloem sap and excreted honeydew.  Journal of Experimental Biology, 35, 74-84.

Mueller, T.F., Blommers, L.H.M. & Mols, P.J.M. (1992) Woolly apple aphid (Eriosoma lanigerum Hausm., Hom., Aphidae) parasitism by Aphelinus mali Hal. (Hym., Aphelinidae) in relation to host stage and host colony size, shape and location.  Journal of Applied Entomology, 114, 143-154.

Oliver, T.H., Leather, S.R. & Cook, J.M. (2008)  Macroevolutionary patterns in the origin of mutualisms,  Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 21, 1597-1608.

Pontin, A.J. (1958)  A preliminary note on the eating of aphids by ants of the genus Lasius. Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, 94, 9-11.

Pontin, A.J. (1960)  Some records of predators and parasites adapted to attack aphids attended by ants.  Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, 95, 154-155.

Pontin, A.J. (1960)  Observations on the keeping of aphid eggs by ants of the genus LasiusEntomologist’s Monthly Magazine, 96, 198-199.

Pontin, A.J. (1978) The numbers and distributions of subterranean aphids and their exploitation by the ant Lasius flavus (Fabr.). Ecological Entomology, 3, 203-207.

Sakata, H. (1994) How an ant decides to prey on or to attend aphids.  Research on Population Ecology, 36, 45-51.

Sakata, H. (1995) Density-dependent predation of the ant Lasius niger (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) on two attendant aphids Lachnus tropicalis and Myzocallis kuricola (Homoptera: Aphidae). Research on Population Ecology, 37, 159-164.

Skinner, G.J. & Whittaker, J.B. (1981) An Experimental investigation of inter-relationships between the wood-ant (Formica rufa) and some tree-canopy herbivores.  Journal of Applied Ecology, 50, 313-326.

Stadler, B. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1999)  Ant attendance in aphids: why different degrees of myrmecophily? Ecological Entomology, 24, 363-369.

Van Bruyssel, E. (1870) The Population of an Old Pear Tree.  MacMillan & Co, London

Vilagra, C.A., Ramirez, C.C. & Niemeyer, H.M. (2002) Antipredator responses of aphids to parasitoids change as a function of aphid physiological state.  Animal Behaviour, 64, 677-683.

Watanabe, S., Murakami, T., Yoshimura, J. & Hasegawa, E. (2016) Color piolymorphism in an aphid is maintained by attending ants.  Science Advances, 2, e1600606

Way, M.J. (1963) Mutualism between ants and honeydew-producing Homoptera.  Annual Review of Entomology, 3, 307-344.

*in my opinion at any rate 🙂

**I have had to take this on faith as have not been able to get hold of the original reference and read it myself

***Trophobiosis is a symbiotic association between organisms where food is obtained or provided. The provider of food in the association is referred to as a trophobiont. The name is derived from the Greek τροφή trophē, meaning “nourishment” and -βίωσις -biosis which is short for the English symbiosis

****Perhaps they are too big for ants to mess with?  They are, however, very often surrounded by Vespid wasps who do appreciate the huge amount of honeydew deposited on the willow leaves and stems.

***** He must have enjoyed it because he also did his MSc project with me the following year 🙂


Post script

I began this post with an illustration from Van Bruyssel.  I finish it with this illustration from another early attempt to get children interested in entomology.  Unfortunately in this case the  ant attended aphids are the very opposite of what they should look like and he further compounds his error by telling his youthful audience that the aphids milk the aphids via their siphunculi 😦


The very opposite of what an ant-attend aphid looks like – from Half hours in the tiny world; wonders of insect life by C.F. Holder (1905)

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Red, green or gold? Autumn colours and aphid host choice

“The falling leaves
Drift by my window
The falling leaves
Of red and gold”


Red, green and gold, all on one tree

When Frank Sinatra sang Autumn Leaves he was almost certainly not thinking of aphids and I am pretty certain that the English lyricist, Johnny Mercer, who translated the words from the original French by Jacques Prévert wasn’t either 🙂

The colours we see in autumn are mainly due to two classes of pigment, the carotenoids (yellow-orange; think carrot) and the anthocyanins (red-purple).  Carotenoids are present in the leaves all year round but are masked by the green chlorophyll.  Chlorophyll breaks down in autumn, leaving the yellow carotenes visible.  The anthocyanins on the other hand are not formed until autumn (Sanger, 1971; Lee & Gould, 2002) and this mixture of pigments give us the colours that have inspired so many artists.


Autumn Leaves Georgia O’Keeffe (1924) Tate Modern

To many, autumn starts with the appearance of the first turning leaves, to me it is the arrival of gynoparae* of the bird cherry-oat aphid (Rhopalosiphum padi) on my bird cherry (Prunus padus) trees.


Bird cherry, Prunus padus, leaves on the turn.

Little did I know when I started my PhD in 1977 that almost thirty years later I would be part of a raging debate about the function of autumn colouration in woody plants. At the time I was interested in the colonisation patterns (or as I pretentiously termed it in my thesis ‘remigration’) of bird cherry aphids from their secondary grass and cereal host plants to their primary host bird cherry.  My study system was 30 bird cherry saplings divided between two cold frames in the Biology Compound at the University of East Anglia (Norwich).  Every day from the middle of August until leaf fall I checked every leaf of each tree, for gynoparae, males and oviparae, carefully noting the position of each leaf, its phenological stage and giving it a unique number. I repeated this in the autumns of 1978 and 1979.  The phenological stage was based on the leaf colour: green, mature; yellow, mature to senescent; red, senescent.  What I reported was that more gynoparae landed on green and yellow leaves than on red and that the gynoparae on green and yellow leaves survived for longer and produced more offspring (oviparae), than those on red leaves (Leather, 1981).   The gynoparae of the bird cherry aphid are quite special in that although as adults they do not feed (Leather, 1982), they do not land on bird cherry trees at random (Leather & Lehti, 1982), but choose trees that not only do their offspring (the oviparae) do better on, but that also favour those aphids hatching from eggs in the spring (Leather, 1986).  It should not have come as a surprise then, that when I analysed some of the data I had collected all those years ago, their preference for green and yellow leaves over red ones, is linked to how long those


Figure 1. Length of time leaves remained on tree after first colonisation by gynoparae of Rhopalosiphum padi (F = 30.1 df 2/77, P <0.001)

leaves have left to live (Figure 1). The timing of events at this time of year, has, of necessity, got to be very precise. The egg-laying females (oviparae) are unable to develop on mature bird cherry leaves (Leather & Dixon, 1981), but it seems that the bird cherry aphid has this under control, making its decisions about the timing of the production of autumn forms (morphs) sometime in August (Ward et al., 1984).  All very sensible as far as I was concerned and that was as far as I took things.  Subsequent work by Furuta (1986) supported this in that he showed that maple aphids settled on and reproduced on green-yellow and yellow-orange leaves but avoided red leaves which had shorter life spans.

Jump forward fifteen years or so, and in a paper, that at the time, had somehow passed me by, the late great Bill Hamilton and Sam Brown (Hamilton & Brown, 2001) hypothesised that trees with an intense autumn display, similarly to those brightly coloured animals that signal their distastefulness with yellows, blacks and reds, were signalling their unsuitability as a host plant to aphids.  Like the costs imposed on insects that sequester plant toxins to protect themselves against predators, the production of anthocyanins responsible for the red autumn colouration is expensive, especially when you consider that the leaves have only a short time left to live (Hoch et al., 2001).  In autumn, trees and woody shrubs are normally mobilising resources in the leaves and moving them back into themselves ready to be used again the following spring (Dixon, 1963). Ecologists and evolutionary biologists were thus keen to explain the phenomenon in terms of trade-offs, for example, fruit flags that advertise the position of fruits for those trees that rely on seed dispersal by vertebrates (Stiles, 1982) or as ultra-violet screens to prevent tissue damage (Merzlyak & Gittelson, 1995).  Hamilton & Brown felt that these hypotheses were either, in the case of the fruit flag, only applicable to trees with fruit present and, in the latter, untenable. Instead they advocated the ‘signalling hypothesis’ which was based on the premise that trees that suffer from a lot of aphids (attacked by more than one species rather than by large numbers of a single species), invest in greater levels of defence and in autumn advertise this using bright warning colours.   The premise being, that although it is metabolically expensive for the plants to produce these colours, it is worth the investment if they result in a reduction in aphid attack.

This hypothesis was not without its detractors. Others suggested, that far from avoiding red colours, aphids were attracted to yellow or green as an indicator of host nutrition (Wilkinson et al., (2002).  Holopainen & Peltonen (2002) also suggested that birch aphids use the onset of autumn colours to pick out those trees where nutrient retranslocation was happening, and thus with higher levels of soluble nitrogen in the leaves.  This was of course, what I was trying to confirm back when I was doing my PhD.  Conversely, supporters of the signalling hypothesis, argued that trees (birch again) that could ‘afford’ to produce bright autumn colours were fitter, so more resistant in general and that they were warning potential herbivores of this by a bright autumn display (Hagen et al 2004).

Round about this time (2002), I was approached by a young Swiss researcher, Marco Archetti, who knew that I had a plot of sixty bird cherry trees that I had planted up when I arrived at Silwood in 1992, originally designed to follow-up some work that I had begun whilst at the Forestry Commission looking at the effects of early season defoliation on subsequent tree growth (Leather, 1993, 1995).  Marco convinced me that I had the ideal set-up to test the ‘signalling hypothesis’ and what was to be a very fruitful collaboration began.

We counted arriving gynoparae and their offspring (oviparae) throughout October (Marco making trips over from Oxford where he was then based**) noting leaf colour before and after each count.  As with my PhD work we found that the greener trees were preferentially colonised by the gynoparae and that more oviparae were produced on those trees and that given what I had found earlier that bird cherry aphid gynoparae chose trees that are good hosts in spring (Leather, 1986), Marco felt that we were able to support the honest signalling hypothesis (Archetti & Leather, 2005).  I was slightly less comfortable about this, as there are only two species of aphid that attack bird cherry and one of those is very rare and the original signalling hypothesis was based on the premise that it was trees that were attacked by a lot of aphid species that used the red colouration as a keep clear signal.  Anyway, it was published 🙂

That said, others agreed with us, for example, Schaefer & Rolshausen (2006) who called it the defence indication hypothesis, arguing that bright colours advertise high levels of plant defence and that the herbivores would do well to stay away from those plants displaying them. On the other hand, Sinkkonen (2006) suggested that reproductively active plants produce autumn colours early to deter insects from feeding on them and thus reduce their seed set.

Chittka & Döring (2007) on the other hand, suggested that there is no need to look further than yellow carotenoids acting as integral components of photosynthesis and protection against light damage and red anthocyanins preventing photo-inhibition (Hoch et al., 2001) as to why trees turn colourful in autumn.  In other words, nothing to do with the insects at all.  A couple of years later however, Thomas Döring and Marco got together with another former colleague of mine from Silwood Park, Jim Hardie, and changed their minds slightly.  This time, whilst conceding that red leaves are not attractive to aphids but noting that yellow leaves are even more attractive than green ones, suggested that the red colour could be being used to mask yellow (Döring et al., 2009).

Others have their own pet theories.  In recent years, veteran Australian entomologist Tom White has become interested in the concept of insect species that specifically feed on senescent plant tissue (White, 2002, 2015) and added to the debate by suggesting that aphids in general are senescence feeders and thus choose green and yellow as they have longest time to live and that the red leaves are also nitrogen depleted (White, 2009) which is supported by my PhD data (Figure 1).  This resulted in a spirited response by Lev-Yadun & Holopainen (2011) who claimed that he had misunderstood the scenario in thinking that leaves go sequentially from green to yellow to red, which they suggest is rare (I question this) and that actually in trees that go from green to red, the leaves still contain significant amounts of nitrogen, so a deterrent signal is still required.


Maple, green to yellow in this case


Spindle, Euonymus europaeus, green to red

What about those trees and other plants that have red or purple leaves in the spring or all year round and not just in autumn?


Some trees have red foliage all year

Trees like some of the ornamental cherries or copper beech? I haven’t been able to find any papers that suggest that red or purple-leaved varieties of beech and cherries are less susceptible to aphid attack.  My own observations, probably imperfectly recalled, are that copper beech is regularly infested by the beech woolly aphid, Phyllaphis fagi , and just as heavily, if not more so than the normal green-leaved  beech trees.  That of course may just be a reflection that the white waxy wool covering the aphid stands out more against the red leaves.  Perhaps someone out here might like to check this out?  Some work that my friend and former colleague, Allan Watt, (sadly unpublished) did many years ago in Scotland looking at the effect of beech species and cultivar on infestation levels by the beech leaf mining weevil, Rhynchaenus fagi, did not indicate any differences between copper and green cultivars.  It does seem however, that in cabbages, leaf colour can tell the specialist cabbage aphid, Brevicoryne brassciae, if plants are well defended or not, the bluer the cabbage, the nastier it is (Green et al, 2015).

To summarise:

  1. Red leaves are produced by the trees in autumn to reduce ultraviolet damage and protect metabolic processes in the leaf.
  2. Red leaves are deliberately produced by the tree to warn aphids that their leaves are well defended – honest signalling.
  3. Red leaves are produced by the tree to ‘fool’ the herbivores that the leaves are likely to drop soon and warn them to keep away so as to safeguard their fruit – dishonest signalling.
  4. The tree is blissfully unaware of the aphids and the aphids are exploiting the intensity of the autumn colours produced by the trees to select which are the best trees to colonise in terms of nutrition and length of time left on the tree.

As I write, the debate still goes on and we seem no nearer to arriving at a definitive answer to the riddle of why trees produce bright leaves in autumn.  If nothing else however, the debate has generated a lot of interest and enabled people to sneak some amusing titles into the scientific literature.  Do make the effort to read the titles of some of the references below.


Archetti, M. (2009) Phylogenetic analysis reveals a scattered distribution of autumn colours. Annals of Botany, 103, 703-713.

Archetti, M. & Leather, S.R. (2005) A test of the coevolution theory of autumn colours: colour preference of Rhopalosiphum padi on Prunus padus.  Oikos, 110, 339-343.

Chittka, L. & Döring, T.F. (2007) Are autumn foliage colors red signals to aphids? PLoS Biology , 5(8): e187. Doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050187.

Dixon, A.F.G. (1963) Reproductive activity of the sycamore aphid, Drepanosiphum platanoides (Schr) (Hemiptera, Aphididae). Journal of Animal Ecology, 32, 33-48.

Döring, T.F., Archetti, M. & Hardie, J. (2009) Autumn leaves seen through herbivore eyes.  Proceedings of the Royal Society London B., 276, 121-127.

Furuta, K. (1986) Host preferences and population dynamics in an autumnal population of the maple aphid, Periphyllus californiensis Shinji (Homoptera: Aphididae). Zeitschrift fur Angewandte Entomologie, 102, 93-100.

Green, J.P., Foster, R., Wilkins, L., Osorio, D. & Hartley, S.E. (2015) Leaf colour as a signal of chemical defence to insect herbivores in wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea).  PLoS ONE, 10(9): e0136884.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0136884.

Hagen, S.B. (2004) Autumn coloration as a signal of tree condition. Proceedings of the Royal Society London B, 271, S184-S185.

Hamilton, W.D. & Brown, S.P. (2001) Autumn tree colours as handicap signal. Proceedings of the Royal Society London B, 268, 1489-1493.

Hoch , W.A.,  Zeldin, E.L. & McCown, B.H. (2001) Physiological significance of anthocyanins during autumnal leaf senescence. Tree Physiology, 21, 1-8.

Holopainen, J.K. & Peltonen, P. (2002) Bright colours of deciduous trees attract aphids: nutrient retranslocation hypothesis.  Oikos, 99, 184-188.

Leather, S.R. (1981) Reproduction and survival: a field study of the gynoparae of the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi (L.). Annales Entomologici Fennici, 47, 131-135.

Leather, S.R. (1982) Do gynoparae and males need to feed? An attempt to allocate resources in the bird cherry-oat aphid Rhopalosiphum padiEntomologia experimentalis et applicata, 31, 386-390.

Leather, S.R. (1986) Host monitoring by aphid migrants: do gynoparae maximise offspring fitness? Oecologia, 68, 367-369.

Leather, S.R. (1993) Early season defoliation of bird cherry influences autumn colonization by the bird cherry aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi. Oikos, 66, 43-47.

Leather, S.R. (1995) Medium term effects of early season defoliation on the colonisation of bird cherry (Prunus padus L.). European Journal of Entomology, 92, 623-631.

Leather, S.R. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1981) Growth, survival and reproduction of the bird-cherry aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi, on its primary host. Annals of Applied Biology, 99, 115-118.

Leather, S.R. & Lehti, J.P. (1982) Field studies on the factors affecting the population dynamics of the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi (L.) in Finland. Annales Agriculturae Fenniae, 21, 20-31.

Lee, D.W. & Gould, K.S. (2002) Anthocyanins in leaves and other vegetative organs: An introduction. Advances in Botanical Research, 37, 1-16.

Lev-Yadun, S. & Holopainen, J.K. (2011) How red is the red autumn leaf herring and did it lose its red color? Plant Signalling & Behavior, 6, 1879-1880.

Merzlyak, W.N. & Gittelson, A. (1995) Why and what for the leaves are yellow in autumn? On the interpretation of optical spectra of senescing leaves (Acer platanoides L.). Journal of Plant Physiology, 145, 315-320.

Sanger, J.E. (1971) Quantitative investigations of leaf pigments from their Inception in buds through autumn coloration to decomposition in falling leaves.  Ecology, 52, 1075-1089.

Schaefer, H.M. & Rolshausen, G. (2006) Plants on red alert – do insects pay attentionBioEssays, 28, 65-71.

Sinkkonen, A. (2006) Do autumn leaf colours serve as reproductive insurance against sucking herbivores?  Oikos, 113, 557-562.

Stiles, E.W. (1982) Fruit flags: two hypotheses. American Naturalist, 120, 500-509.

Ward, S.A., Leather, S.R., & Dixon, A.F.G. (1984) Temperature prediction and the timing of sex in aphids. Oecologia, 62, 230-233.

White, T.C.R. (2003) Nutrient translocation hypothesis: a subsect of the flush-feeding/senescence-feeding hypothesis. Oikos, 103, 217.

White, T.C.R. (2009) Catching a red herring: autumn colours and aphids. Oikos, 118, 1610-1612.

White, T.C.R. (2015) Senescence-feesders: a new trophic subguild of insect herbivore. Journal of Applied Entomology, 139, 11-22.

Wilkinson, D.M., Sherratt, T.N., Phillip, D.M., Wratten, S.D., Dixon, A.F.G. & Young, A.J. (2002) The adaptive significance of autumn colours.  Oikos, 99, 402-407.


 *for a detailed account of the wonderful terminology associated with aphid life cycles read here

**coincidentally he is now a Lecturer at the University of East Anglia in the same Department where I did my PhD


Filed under Aphidology, Aphids, Science writing

An aphid is… a flea, a louse, and even a marine mammal!

Earlier this year I wrote about the debate that rages about the correct way to talk about thrips during which I got distracted and ended up writing about their names in different languages. It turns out that I am not alone in being curious about international insect naming. I have just finished reading Matthew Gandy’s excellent book Moth, where he waxes lyrical about the different names used to describe butterflies and moths around the world.  This, of course, made me wonder what aphid would turn up, so armed with dictionaries and Google Translate, I traveled the world to see what I could discover.


The bronze-brown dandelion aphid, Uroleucon taraxaci – Photo by Jasper Hubert

There are a lot of languages so I am only going to highlight a few versions of aphid that I found interesting or surprising.  According to The Oxford English Dictionary, Linneaus coined the word Aphides, which may (or not) have been inspired by the Ancient Greek  ἀφειδής‎ (apheidḗs) meaning unsparing, perhaps in relation to their rapid reproduction and feeding habits.  The modern spelling of aphid seems to have come into being after the Second World War, although you could still find aphides being used in the late 1940s (e.g. Broadbent et al., 1948; Kassanis, 1949), and it can still be found in more recent scientific literature where the journal is hosted in a non-English speaking country.

Many aphid names are very obviously based on the modern Latin word coined by Linneaus, although in some countries more than one name can be used, as in the UK where aphid is the technical term but blackfly and green-fly are also commonly used.


Aphide derived names

Albanian              afideja

English                  aphid

French                  aphide

Hindu                    एफिड ephid

Portuguese         afídio

Spanish                áfido


More common are those names that relate to the vague resemblance that aphids have to lice and to their plant feeding habit. The term plant lice to describe aphids was commonly used in the scientific literature up and into the early 1930s (e.g. Mordvilko, 1928; Marcovitch, 1935).


Names linked to the putative resemblance to lice and their plant feeding habit

Bosnian                lisna uš                 uš is louse, lisna derived from leaf

Bulgarian             listna vŭshka     vŭshka louse, listna plant leaf

Danish                  bladlaus               blad is leaf, laus louse

Dutch                    bladluis                blad is leaf, luis is louse

Estonian               lehetäi                  leht is leaf, tai is louse

German                Blattlaus               blatt is leaf, laus is louse

Greek                   pseíra ton fytón louse on plant

Hungarian           levéltetű               leve is leaf, tetű is louse

Icelandic              lús or blaðlús     lús is louse, blað is plant

Latvian                  laputs                   lapa is, uts is louse

Norwegian          bladlus                 blad is plant, lus is louse

Swedish               bladlus                 as for Norwegian


If you draw siphunculi on to a louse and add a cauda to the rear end you can just about see the resemblance.


Louse with added siphunculi and cauda


Names based on the premise that aphids resemble fleas

French  puceron                  puce is flea

Spanish pulgón                   pulga is flea


Flea with cauda and siphunclus, but still only a poor imitation of the real thing.  Even with added aphid features I don’t see the resemblance 🙂


In Turkish, aphid is yaprak biti which roughly translates to leaf biter.  There are then a few languages where there appears to be no connection with their appearance or feeding habit.


Other names for aphid

Basque                 zorri

Chinese                蚜

Filipino                 dapulak

Finnish                  kirva

Lithuanian           Mszyca

Tamil                     அசுவினி Acuviṉi

Welsh                   llyslau

Xhosa                    zomthi


In Lithuanian, where aphid is Mszyca, which looks like it might be derived from Myzus, an important aphid genus, aphid also translates to amaras which means blight.  In the case of a heavy aphid infestation, this is probably an apt description.  I was also amused to find that whilst the Welsh have a name for aphid, Scottish Gaelic does not.

My all-time favourite, and one for which I can find no explanation at all, is dolphin.  According to Curtis (1845), aphids on cereals in some counties of England were known as wheat dolphins.  I was also able to trace the use of this name back to the previous century (Marsham, 1798), but again with no explanation why this name should have arisen.


The wheat dolphin 🙂


Broadbent, L., Doncaster, J.P., Hull, R. & Watson, M.A. (1948) Equipment used for trapping and identifying alate aphides.  Proceedings of the Royal Entomological Society of London (A), 23, 57-58.

Curtis, J. (1845) Observations on the natural history and economy of various insects etc., affecting the corn-crops, including the parasitic enemies of the wheat midge, the thrips, wheat louse, wheat bug and also the little worm called Vibrio. Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society, 6, 493-518.

Gandy, M. (2016) Moth, Reaktion Books, London

Kassanis, B. (1949) The transmission of sugar-beet yellows virus by mechanical inoculation. Annals of Applied Biology, 36, 270-272.

Marcovitch, S. (1935) Experimental evidence on the value of strip farming as a method for the natural control of injurious insects with special reference to plant lice. Journal of Economic Entomology, 28, 62-70.

Marsham, T. (1798) XIX. Further observations on the wheat insect, in a letter to the Rev. Samuel Goodenough, L.L.D. F.R.S. Tr.L.S.  Transactions of the Linnaean Society of London, 4, 224-229.

Mordvilko, A. (1928) LXX.—The evolution of cycles and the origin of Heteroecy (migrations) in plant-lice , Annals and Magazine of Natural History: Series 10, 2, 570-582.


Filed under Aphids, EntoNotes

Not all aphids have the same internal biomes

Headline message for those of you too busy to read the whole thing

Aphids have mutualistic symbiotic bacteria living inside them, one set, the primary endosymbionts, Buchnera aphidicola are obligate, i.e. in normal circumstances, the aphid can’t live without them and vice versa. All aphids have them. The others, the secondary symbionts, of which there are, at the last count, more than seven different species, are facultative, i.e. aphids can survive without them and not all aphids have them or the same combination of them. These can help the aphid in many ways, such as, making them more resistant to parasitic wasps, able to survive heat stress better and helping them use their host plants more efficiently. Hosting the secondary symbionts may, however, impose costs on the aphids.

Now read on, or if you have had enough of the story get back to work  🙂

Like us, aphids have a thriving internal ecology, they are inhabited by a number of bacteria or bacteria like organisms. The existence of these fellow travellers and the fact that they are transmitted transovarially, has been known for over a hundred years (Huxley, 1858; Peklo, 1912)*, although their role within the body of the aphids was not entirely understood for some time, despite Peklo’s conviction that they were symbionts and transferred via the eggs to the next generation. Some years later the Hungarian entomologist László Tóth** hypothesised that aphids because the plant sap that they feed on did not contain enough proteins to meet their demands for growth, must be obtaining the extra nitrogen they needed from their symbionts, although he was unable to prove this empirically (Tóth, 1940). This was very firmly disputed by Tom Mittler some years later, who using the giant willow aphid, Tuberolachnus salignus, showed that aphid honeydew and willow phloem sap contained the same amino acids (Mittler, 1953, 1958ab). It was not only aphidologists who were arguing about the nature and role of insect symbionts, as this extract from a review of the time makes clear,

It is not our purpose here to harangue on terminology; suffice it to say that we will use “symbiote” for the microorganism and “host” for the larger organism (insect) involved in a mutualistic or seemingly mutualistic association.” (Richards & Brooks, 1958).

Interestingly it is in this paper that they mention, using the term “provocactive” the use of antibiotics to create aposymbiotic individuals in attempts to prove that the symbionts were first bacteria, and second, benefiting their insect hosts. The concluded that there was enough evidence to suggest that the endosymbionts were involved in some way in the nutritional and possibly reproductive processes of the insects studied, mainly cockroaches. At the time of the review no similar work had been done on aphids. A few years later though, two American entomologists sprayed aphids with several different antibiotics and found that this caused increased mortality and reduced fecundity when compared with untreated ones (Harries & Mattson, 1963). Presaging its future dominance in aphid symbiont work, one of the aphids was the pea aphid, Acyrthosiphon pisum. Antibiotics were also shown to eliminate and damage the symbionts associated with Aphis fabae followed by impaired development and fecundity in the aphid itself adding yet more evidence that the symbionts were an essential part of the aphid biome (Ehrhardt & Schmutterer, 1966). There was, however, still much debate as to how the symbionts provided proteins to the aphids, and although light and electron microscopy studies confirmed that the symbionts were definitely micro-organisms (Lamb & Hinde, 1967; Hinde, 1971), the answer to that question was to remain unanswered until the 1980s although the development of aphid artificial diets (Dadd & Krieger, 1967) which could be used in conjunction with antibiotic treatments, meant that it was possible to show that the symbionts provided the aphids with essential amino acids (Dadd & Kreiger, 1968; Mittler, 1971ab).*** Although the existence of secondary symbionts in other Homoptera was known (Buchner, 1965), it was not until Rosalind Hinde described them from the rose aphid, Macrosiphum rosae, that their presence in aphids was confirmed (Hinde, 1971).   Of course it was inevitable that they would then be discovered in the pea aphid although their role was unknown (Grifiths & Beck, 1973). Shortly afterwards they were able to show that material produced from the symbionts was passed into the body of the aphid (Griffiths & Beck, 1975) and it was also suggested suggested that it was possible that the primary symbionts were able to synthesise amino acids (Srivastava & Auclair, 1975) and sterols (Houk et al., 1976) for the benefit of their aphid hosts (partners). By the early 1980s it was accepted dogma that aphids were unable to reproduce or survive without their primary symbionts (Houk & Griffiths, 1980; Ishikawa, 1982) and by the late 1980s that dietary sterols were provided by the primary symbionts (Douglas, 1988).


Primary symbiont (P) in process of dividing seen next to secondary symbionts (S) and mitochondrion (m) from Houk & Griffiths (1980).

Despite the huge amount of research and the general acceptance that the endosymbionts were an integral part of the aphid’s biome “The mycetocyte symbionts are transmitted directly from one insect generation to the next through the female. There are no known cases of insects that acquire mycetocyte symbionts from the environment or from insects other than their parents” (Douglas , 1989), their putative identity was not determined until 1991 (Munson et al., 1991), when they were named Buchnera aphidicola, and incidentally placed in a brand new genus. Note however, that like some aphids, B. aphidicola represents a complex of closely related bacteria and not a single species (Moran & Baumann, 1994). Research on the role of the primary symbionts now picked up pace and it was soon confirmed that they were responsible for the synthesis of essential amino acids used by the aphids, such as tryptophan (Sasaki et al., 1991; Douglas & Prosser, 1992) and that it was definitely an obligate relationship on both sides**** (Moran & Baumann, 1994).

Now that the mystery of the obligate primary endosymbionts was ‘solved’, attention turned to the presumably facultative secondary symbionts, first noticed more than twenty years earlier (Hinde, 1971)***** began to be scrutinised in earnest. Nancy Moran and colleagues (Moran et al., 2005) identified three ‘species’ of secondary bacterial symbionts, Serratia symbiotica, Hamiltonella defensa and Regiella insecticola. As these are not found in all individuals of a species they are facultative rather than obligate. The secondary symbionts were soon shown not to have nutritional benefits for the aphids (Douglas et al., 2006). They are instead linked to a whole swathe of aphid life history attributes, ranging from resistance to parasitoids (Oliver et al., 2003; 2005; Schmid et al., 2012), resistance to heat and other abiotic stressors (Montllor et al., 2002; Russell & Moran 2006; Enders & Miller, 2016) and to host plant use (Tsuchida et al., 2004; McLean et al., 2011; Zytynska et al., 2016).

And finally, Mittler (1971b) mentions the reddish colouration developed by aphids reared on some of the antibiotic diets and hypothesises that this may be linked to the symbionts. I have written earlier about aphid colour variants and the possibility that the symbionts may have something to do with it. The grain aphid, Sitobion avenae has a number of colour variants and it was suggested that levels of carotenoids present might have something to do with the colours expressed and that in some way this was controlled by the presence of absence of symbionts (Jenkins et al., 1999). More recently Tsuchida and colleagues in a series of elegant experiments on the ubiquitous pea aphid, have shown that the intensity of green colouration is dependent on the presence of yet another endosymbiont, a Rickettsiella (Tsuchida et al., 2010). The authors hypothesise that being green

Pea aphids colour

Elegant demonstration that in some strains of the pea aphid, green colour is a sign of an infection by Rickettsiella (Tsuchida et al., 2010).

rather than pink or red, may reduce predation by ladybirds as has been suggested before (Losey et al., 1997).

New secondary symbionts continue to be discovered and with each discovery, new hypotheses are raised and tested. It would seem that there is a whole ecology of secondary symbionts within the aphid biome waiting to be explored and written about (Zytynska & Weisser, 2016). What are you waiting for, but do remember to come up for air sometime and relate what you find back to the ecology of the aphids 🙂



Buchner, P. (1965) Endosymbiosis of Animals with Plant Microorganisms. Interscience, New York.

Dadd, R.H. & Krieger, D.L. (1967) Continuous rearing of aphids of the Aphis fabae complex on sterile synthetic diet. Journal of Economic Entomology, 60, 1512-1514.

Dadd, R.H. & Krieger, D.L. (1968) Dietary amino acid requirements of the aphid Myzus persicae. Journal of Insect Physiology, 14, 741-764.

Douglas, A.E. (1988) On the source of sterols in the green peach aphid, Myzus persicae, reared on holidic diets. Journal of Insect Physiology, 34, 403-408.

Douglas, A.E. (1998) Mycetocyte symbiosis in insects. Biological Reviews, 64, 409-434.

Douglas, A.E. & Prosser, W.A. (1992) Sythesis of the essential amiono acid trypthotan in the pea aphid (Acyrthosiphon pisum) symbiosis. Journal of Insect Physiology, 38, 565-568.

Douglas, A.E., Francois, C.M.L.J. & Minto, L.B. (2006) Facultative ‘secondary’ bacterial symbionts and the nutrition of the pea aphid, Acyrthosiphon pisum. Physiological Entomology, 31, 262-269.

Ehrhardt, P. & Schmutterer, H. (1966) Die Wirkung Verschiedener Antibiotica auf Entwicklung und Symbionten Künstlich Ernährter Bohnenblattläuse (Aphis fabae Scop.). Zeitschrift für Morphologie und Ökologie der Tiere, 56, 1-20.

Enders, L.S. & Miller, N.J. (2016)Stress-induced changes in abundance differ among obligate and facultative endosymbionts of the soybean aphid. Ecology & Evolution, 6, 818-829.

Griffiths, G.W. & Beck, S.D. (1973) Intracellular symbiotes of the pea aphid, Acyrthosiphon pisum. Journal of Insect Physiology, 19, 75-84.

Griffiths, G.W. & Beck, S.D. (1975) Ultrastructure of pea aphid mycetocystes: evidence for symbiote secretion. Cell & Tissue Research, 159, 351-367.

Harries, F.H. & Mattson, V.J. (1963) Effects of some antibiotics on three aphid species. Journal of Economic Entomology, 56, 412-414.

Hinde, R. (1971) The control of the mycetome symbiotes of the aphids Brevicoryne brassicae, Myzus persicae, and Macrosiphum rosae. Journal of Insect Physiology, 17, 1791-1800.

Houk, E.J. & Griffiths, G.W. (1980) Intracellular symbiotes of the Homoptera. Annual Review of Entomology, 25, 161-187.

Houk, E.J., Griffiths, G.W. & Beck, S.D. (1976) Lipid metabolism in the symbiotes of the pea aphid, Acyrthosiphon pisum. Comparative Biochemistry & Physiology, 54B, 427-431.

Huxley, T.H. (1858) On the agamic reproduction and morphology of Aphis – Part I. Transactions of the Linnean Society of London, 22, 193-219.

Ishikawa, H. (1978) Intracellular symbionts as a major source of the ribosomal RNAs in the aphid mycetocytes. Biochemical & Biophysical Research Communications, 81, 993-999.

Ishikawa, H. (1982) Isolation of the intracellular symbionts and partial characterizations of their RNA species of the elder aphid, Acyrthosiphon magnoliae. Comparative Biochemistry & Physiology, 72B, 239-247.

Jenkins,  R.L., Loxdale, H.D., Brookes, C.P. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1999)  The major carotenoid pigments of the grain aphid Sitobion avenae (F.) (Hemiptera: Aphididae).  Physiological Entomology, 24, 171-178.

Lamb, R.J. & Hinde, R. (1967) Structure and development of the mycetome in the cabbage aphid, Brevicoryne brassciae. Journal of invertebrate Pathology, 9, 3-11.

Losey, J. E., Ives, A. R., Harmon, J., Ballantyne, F. &Brown, C. (1997). A polymorphism maintained by opposite patterns of parasitism and predation. Nature, 388, 269-272.

McLean, A.H.C., van Asch, M., Ferrari, J. & Godfray, H.C.J. (2011) Effects of bacterial secondary symbionts on host plant use in pea aphids. Proceedings of the Royal Society B., 278, 760-766.

Mittler, T.E. (1953) Amino-acids in phloem sap and their excretion by aphids. Nature, 172, 207.

Mittler, T.E. (1958a) Studies on the feeding and nutrition of Tuberolachnus salignus (Gmelin) (Homoptera, Aphididae). II. The nitrogen and sugar composition of ingested phloem sap and excreted honeydew. Journal of Experimental Biology, 35, 74-84.

Mittler, T.E. (1958b) Studies on the feeding and nutrition of Tuberolachnus salignus (Gmelin) (Homoptera, Aphididae). III The nitrogen economy. Journal of Experimental Biology, 35, 626-638.

Mittler, T.E. (1971a) Dietary amino acid requirements of the aphid Myzus persicae affected by antibiotic uptake. Journal of Nutrition, 101, 1023-1028.

Mittler, T.E. (1971b) Some effects on the aphid Myzus persicae of ingesting antibiotics incorporated into artificial diets. Journal of Insect Physiology, 17, 1333-1347.

Montllor, C.B., Maxmen, A. & Purcell, A.H. (2002) Facultative bacterial endosymbionts benefit pea pahids Acyrthosiphon pisum under heat stress. Ecological Entomology, 27, 189-195.

Moran, N. & Baumann, P. (1994) Phylogenetics of cytoplasmically inherited microrganisms of arthropods. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 9, 15-20.

Moran, N.A., Russell, J.A., Koga, R. & Fukatsu, T. (2005) Evolutionary relationships of three new species of Enterobacteriaceae living as symbionts of aphids and other insects. Applied & Environmental Microbiology, 71, 3302-3310.

Munson, M.A., Baumann, P. & Kinsey, M.G. (1991) Buchnera gen. nov. and Buchnera aphidicola sp. Nov., a taxon consisting of the mycetocyte-associated, primary endosymbionts of aphids. International Journal of Systematic Bacteriology, 41, 566-568.

Oliver, K.M., Russell, J.A., Moran, N.A. & Hunter, M.S. (2003) Facultative bacterial symbionts in aphids confer resistance to parasitic wasps. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 100, 1803-1807.

Oliver, K.M., Moran, N.A. & Hunter, M.S. (2005) Variation in resistance to parasitism in aphids is due to symbionts not host genotype. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 102, 12795-12800.

Peklo, J (1912) Über symbiotische Bakterien der Aphiden. Berichte der Deutschen Botanischen Gesellschaft, 30, 416-419.

Richards, A.G. & Brooks, M.A. (1958) Internal symbiosis in insects. Annual Review of Entomology, 3, 37-56.

Russell, J.A. & Moran, N.A. (2006) Costs and benefits of symbiont infection in aphids: variation among symbionts and across temperatures. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 273, 603-610.

Sasaki, T., Hayashi, H. & Ishikawa, H. (1991) Growth and reproduction of the symbiotic and aposymbiotic pea aphids, Acyrthosiphon pisum mainatained on artificial diets. Journal of Insect Physiology, 37, 749-756.

Schmid, M., Sieber, R., Zimmermann, Y.S. & Vorburger, C. (2012) Development, specificity and sublethal effects of symbiont-conferred resistance to parasitoids in aphids. Functional Ecology, 26, 207-215.

Srivastava P.N. & Auclair, J.L. (1975) Role of single amino acids in phagostimualtion, growth, and survival of Acyrthosiphon pisum. Journal of Insect Physiology, 21, 1865-1871.

Tóth, L. (1940) The protein metabolism of aphids. Annales Musei Nationalis Hungarici 33, 167-171.

Tsuchida, T., Koga, R. & Fukatsu, T. (2004) Host plant specialization governed by facultative symbiont. Science, 303, 1989.

Tsuchida, T., Koga, R., Horikawa, M., Tsunoda, T., Maoka, T., Matsumoto, S., Simon, J. C. &Fukatsu, T. (2010). Symbiotic bacterium modifies aphid body color. Science 330: 1102-1104.

Zytynska, S. E. &Weisser, W. W. (2016). The natural occurrence of secondary bacterial symbionts in aphids. Ecological Entomology, 41, 13-26.

Zytynska, S.E., Meyer, S.T., Sturm, S., Ullmann, W., Mehrparvar, M. & Weisser, W.W. (2016) Secondary bacterial symbiont community in aphids responds to plant diversity. Oecologia, 180, 735-747.



*I should point out that although Huxley clearly described the structure and contents of the mycetocytes he had absolutely no idea what they were and what function, if any, they had. Despite the many authors who supported Peklo’s claim that the contents of the mycetocytes were bacteria he was still having to defend himself against detractors more than 50 years later (Peklo, 1953).

Peklo, J. (1953) Microorganisms or mitochondria? Science, 118, 202-206.


**not to be confused with the László Tóth who vandalised Michelangelo’s Pietà

***interestingly, although the existence of primary symbionts in aphids and their possible role in aphid nutrition was by then firmly established, my vade mecum as a student, Tony Dixon’s Biology of Aphids, makes no mention of them at all, although first published in 1973. The first edition of Aphid Ecology (1985) also by Tony Dixon, only devotes three quarters of a page to them, but by the second edition, published in 1998, they get a whole chapter to themselves.

Buchnera appears to have been ‘lost’ but replaced by a yeast like symbiont (Braendle et al., (2003).

Braendle, C., Miura, T., Bickel, R., Shingleton, A.W., Kambhampari, S. & Stern, D.L. (2003) Developmental origin and evolution of bacteriocytes in the aphid-Buchnera symbiosis. PloS Biology, 1, e21. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0000021.


*****although Huxley’s description of the unknown structures that he saw in aphids in 1858, does seem to include secondary symbionts as well as the primary ones.


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Filed under Aphidology, Aphids

Not all aphids get lost

Although aphids are very good at kicking, we know that aphids would not be very good at football as they are very short-sighted (Doring et al., 2008) but does that mean that they are not very good at finding their host plants? There is a common misperception, and not just confined to non-entomologists, that aphids are no more than aerial plankton. In 1924 Charles Elton

Lost 1

whilst on an expedition to Nordaustlandet* (the second largest of the Spitsbergen group and almost entirely covered by ice) reported finding large numbers of aphids, many still alive, later identified as Dilachnus piceae (now known as Cinara piceae) (Elton, 1925).

Lost 2

Cinara piceae the Greater Black Spruce Aphid –big and beautiful.


He suggested that the aphids came from the Kola Peninsula, a distance of about 800 miles (almost 1300 km) due to the strong south and south-east winds blowing at the time. He estimated that they would have made the journey within twelve to twenty-four hours. This was regarded as being an example of totally passive migration and used as one of many examples of aerial plankton** (Gislen, 1948). This is, however, probably not giving aphids credit for what they are capable of doing when it comes to flight. Berry & Taylor (1968), who sampled aphids at 610 m above the grounds using aeroplanes, implied that the aphids, although using jet streams, were flying rather than floating (page 718 and page 720) and that they would descend to the ground in the evening and not fly during the night.

Lost 3

Aphids don’t usually fly during the night. (From Berry & Taylor (1968)).

Dixon (1971) interprets this somewhat differently and suggests that the “movement of the air in which it is flying determines the direction of its flight and the distance it will travel” but then goes on to say “after flying for an hour or two aphids settle indiscriminately on plants”. So yes the speed of the air in which the aphid is flying will determine how far it flies in a set time, but as aphids can fly much longer than an hour or two, active flights of from between 7-12 hours have been recorded (Cockbain, 1961), this rather suggests that the aphids are making a “decision” to stop flying and descend from the jet stream. That said, in the words of the great C.G. Johnson “aphids are weak flyers”, they cannot make progress against headwinds of more than 2 km per hour (Johnson, 1954), although Trevor Lewis gives them slightly more power and suggests that the can navigate against winds of up to 3 km per hour (Lewis, 1964).

Whatever the upper limit is, it doesn’t mean that they are powerless when it comes to ‘deciding’ when to stop flying. In the words of Hugh Loxdale and colleagues, “aphids are not passive objects” (Loxdale et al, 1993). Aphidologists, were until the 1980s (Kennedy, 1986), generally somewhat sceptical about the ability of aphids to direct their flight in relation to specific host finding from the air and not just flying towards plants of the right colour (Kennedy et al., 1961), or at all after take-off (Haine, 1955). The general consensus now, is that aphids control the direction of their flight in the boundary layer*** but that it is determined by the wind at higher altitudes (Loxdale et al., 1993).   Whilst we are discussing viewpoints, another point of debate is on whether aphids migrate or not. Loxdale et al., (1993) state that “migration can be viewed ecologically as population redistribution through movement, regardless of whether deliberate of uncontrolled or from the behavioural viewpoint of a persistent straightened-out movement affected by the animal’s own locomotory exertions or by its active embarkation on a vehicle”. In the case of aphids the vehicle could be the wind. Under both definitions, aphids can be defined as undertaking migrations. Long-distance migration by aphids is defined as being greater than 20 km and short-distance (local) migration being less than this (Loxdale et al., 1993). Long-distance migration is likely to be the exception rather than the rule with most aphids making local flights and not venturing out of the boundary layer, sometimes travelling distances no more than a few hundred metres (Loxdale et al., 1993).

There are different types of winged aphids (morphs) and these show different angles of take-off and rates of climb.  In Aphis fabae for example, which host –alternates between spindle and bean, the gynoparae which migrate from the secondary host to the primary host, have a steeper angle of take-off and climb more rapidly than the alate exules which only disperse between the secondary host plants (David & Hardie, 1988).

Lost 4

The gynoparae are thus much more likely to end up in the jet stream and be carried longer distances, with, of course, a greater chance of getting lost (Ward et al., 1998). The alate exules however, may only land in the next field or even in the same one, and easily find a new host plant (Loxdale et al., 1993). These differences between the morphs of host alternating aphids are also seen in the bird cherry-oat aphid Rhopalosiphum padi (Nottingham et al., 1991).  Once safely air-borne, the aphids then have another set of problems to overcome.

How do they ‘decide’ when to land? How do they ‘know’ that there are host plants below them? Aphids have two main senses that help them locate their host plants, vision and smell (odour recognition) (Kring, 1972; Döring, 2014). Generally speaking, aphids respond positively to what we perceive as green or yellow light and negatively to blue and red light (Döring & Chittka, 2007) although this is not an absolute rule. Some aphids are known to preferentially choose yellowing leaves (sign of previous infestation) e.g. Black Pecan Aphid Melanocallis caryaefoliae (Cottrell et al., 2009) which indicates a pretty sophisticated host finding suite of behaviours. Aphids in flight chambers will delay landing if presented with non-host odours even in the presence of a green target (Nottingham & Hardie, 1993) and conversely can be attracted to colourless water traps that have been scented with host plant odours (Chapman et al., 1981). Aphids are thus using both visual and olfactory cues to locate their host plants and to ‘decide’ when to descend from the jet stream or boundary layer (Kring, 1972; Döring, 2014). They are not merely aerial plankton, nor are they entirely at the mercy of the winds, they do not deserve to be described as passive (Reynolds & Reynolds, 2009).

Once at ground level and on a potential host plant, aphids go through a complicated suite of behaviours to determine if the host is suitable or not; if the plant meets all the required

Lost 5

From air to plant – how aphids chose their host plants – after Dixon (1973).


criteria, then the aphid will start feeding and reproducing. It is interesting to note that although there may be a lot of aphids in the air, the number of plants on the ground that

Lost 6

Settled safely and producing babies 🙂


are infested with them is relatively low, about 10% in a diverse landscape (Staab et al., 2015), although in a crop, the level of infestation can approach 100% (e.g. Carter et al., 1980). The fact that in some cases less than 1% of those that set off will have found a host plant (Ward et al., 1998) is not a problem when you are a member of clone; as long as not all of the members of a clone gets lost the journey has been a success.

They may be small, they may be weak flyers, but enough of them find a suitable host plant to keep the clone alive and kicking; not all aphids get lost.



Carter, N., Mclean, I.F.G., Watt, A.D., & Dixon, A.F.G. (1980) Cereal aphids – a case study and review. Applied Biology, 5, 271-348.

Chapman, R.F., Bernays, E.A., & Simpson, S.J. (1981) Attraction and repulsion of the aphid, Cavariella aegopodii, by plant odors. Journal of Chemical Ecology, 7, 881-888.

Cockbain, A.J. (1961) Fuel utilization and duration of tethered flight in Aphis fabae Scop. Journal of Experimental Biology, 38, 163-174.

Cottrell, T.E., Wood, B.W. & Xinzhi, N. (2009) Chlorotic feeding injury by the Black Pecan Aphid (Hemiptera: Aphididae) to pecan foliage promotes aphid settling and nymphal development. Environmental Entomology, 38, 411-416

David, C.T. & Hardie, J. (1988) The visual responses of free-flying summer and autumn forms of the black bean aphid, Aphis fabae, in an automated flight chamber. Physiological Entomology, 13, 277-284.

Dixon, A.F.G. (1971) Migration in aphids. Science Progress, Oxford, 59, 41-53.

Dixon, A.F.G. (1973) Biology of Aphids, Edward Arnold, London.

Döring, T.F. & Chittka, L. (2007) Visual ecology of aphids – a classcial review on the role of colours in host finding. Arthropod-Plant Interactions, 1, 3-16.

Döring, T., Hardie, J., Leather, S.R., Spaethe, J., & Chittka, L. (2008) Can aphids play football? Antenna, 32, 146-147.

Döring, T. (2014) How aphids find their host plants, how they don’t. Annals of Applied Biology, 165, 3-26.

Elton, C.S. (1925) The dispersal of insects to Spitsbergen. Transactions of the Entomological Society of London, 73, 289-299.

Gislen, T. (1948) Aerial plankton and its conditions of life. Biological Reviews, 23, 109-126.

Haine, E. (1955) Aphid take-off in controlled wind speeds. Nature, 175, 474-475

Johnson, C.G. (1951) The study of wind-borne insect populations in relation to terrestrial ecology, flight periodicity and the estimation of aerial populations. Science Progress, 39, 41-62.

Johnson, C.G. (1954) Aphid migration in relation to weather. Biological Reviews, 29, 87-118

Kennedy, J. S., Booth, C. O. & Kershaw, W. J. S. (1961). Host finding by aphids in the field III Visual attraction. Annals of Applied Biology, 49, 1-21.

Kring, J.B. (1972) Flight behavior of aphids. Annual Review of Entomology, 17, 461-492.

Lewis, T. (1964) The effects of shelter on the distribution of insect pests. Scientific Horticulture, 17, 74-84

Loxdale, H. D., Hardie, J., Halbert, S., Foottit, R., Kidd, N. A. C. &Carter, C. I. (1993).The relative importance of short-range and long-range movement of flying aphids. Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 68, 291-312.

Nottingham, S.F., Hardie, J. & Tatchell, G.M. (1991) Flight behaviour of the bird cherry aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi. Physiological Entomology, 16, 223-229.

Reynolds, A.M. & Reynolds, D.R. (2009)  Aphid aerial desnsity profiles are consistent with turbulent advection amplifying flight behaviours: abandoning the epithet ‘passive’. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 276, 137-143.

Staab, M., Blüthgen, N., & Klein, A.M. (2015) Tree diversity alters the structure of a tri-trophic network in a biodiversity experiment Oikos, 124, 827-834.

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.


Post script

Political and geographic borders are not factors that deter aphid migrants, Wiktelius (1984) points out that aphids regularly make the journey across the Baltic in both directions to and from Sweden.

Wiktelius, S. (1984) Long range migration of aphids into Sweden. International Journal of Biometeorology, 28, 185-200.


*Elton refers to it as North-East Land

** Johnson (1951) objects to this terminology in no uncertain terms. That said, as there are records of non-winged aphids being caught by aircraft (Kring, 1972), it does suggest that there may be some accidental migration going on.

*** The UK Met Office defines the boundary layer as “that part of the atmosphere that directly feels the effect of the earth’s surface” and goes on to say that depending on local conditions it can range in depth from a few metres to several kilometres.


Filed under Aphidology, Aphids

Not all books about aphids are for grown-ups!

A couple of weeks ago I was preparing a new lecture on the endocrine control of alary polymorphism in aphids. As is my wont when I want to get myself in the right frame of mind for aphid lecture writing, I went across to my book shelf to get down my copy of Tony Dixon’s excellent little book The Biology of Aphids (it might be old but it has some of the simplest and clearest explanations of complex aphid biology that I know of).

Anna aphid1

To my horror (and shock) it wasn’t here.  I had obviously lent it to a student and not instilled the fear of death into them 🙂  Once I got over my shock I turned to the internet (Amazon to be exact), and searched for an acceptable copy, which I successfully found*.  Whilst browsing the virtual shelves however, my eye was caught by a book with the intriguing title Anna Aphid.    I was stunned and amused, and as it cost less than a fiver including postage, I added it to my virtual basket.

A few days later it arrive and I was the proud owner of Anna Aphid  by Christine Goppel.

Anna aphid2

Anna Aphid

I instantly sat down and read it cover to cover (it isn’t very long). I don’t usually post book reviews, but having read it and pedantically groaned at the aphidological errors, I thought I might as well as share my thoughts with you all.  Anna Aphid was published by North-South Books in September  2005, and if they had any in stock you could buy it new for £9.99, (or $8.45 in the USA); don’t worry, there are plenty of used copies available, and mine was in very good condition.

The blurb for states “A tiny aphid named Anna lives on a big green leaf with her family. But Anna is different from the other aphids. She is curious to discover what lies beyond their green world. So Anna sets off to explore. In an entertaining visual guessing game, we see things from Anna’s point of view”

This is a fairly accurate statement of the content, although it gives things away a bit by saying that she lives on a leaf, as in the book Anna thinks she is living on a planet (remove the letter e and you get the pun).  The book which is very well-written, details the adventures of Anna from her beginnings as an apterous (non-winged) aphid, living with her family, including her father, (yes, a big aphidological blooper).  She expresses a wish to see the rest of the universe, and despite everything I had just read about endocrine control of alary polymorphism 🙂 suddenly sprouts wings, although given that her living conditions as shown in the illustrations seem quite crowded, this would be acceptable if she had just moulted to adulthood.  As an aphid pedant, I couldn’t help noticing that she only had one pair of wings instead of the normal two that I would expect.  The cephalo-thorax-abdomen body structure was also hard to ignore, as was the fact that poor Anna seemed to have mislaid a pair of legs somewhere.

Anna aphid3

Anna takes flight (she looks more like a frog with wings than an aphid)

Having taken flight and set off into the unknown vastness of space (from an aphid’s point of view), Anna has a series of adventures and near escapes from death.  She flies too near to the sun, narrowly escaping being burnt to a cinder, then lands on the moon where she attempts

Anna aphid4

Anna landing on the moon and giving us an interesting view of aphid feet!

to eat the strange vegetation she finds there , in the course of which she reveals that instead of having piercing and sucking mouthparts, she appears to be equipped with chewing ones.

Anna aphid5

Anna exhibiting non-standard mouth parts as she eats moon fodder.

Anna then hitches a lift on a comet, and lands on a shaggy red planet, which turns out to be yet another dangerous place as she is almost sucked into a black hole. Luckily, an exploding planet hurls Anna into a bubbling sea where she only just escapes drowning by climbing onto a small island.

Anna aphid6

The bubbling sea

 Safe from drowning, a gentle warm breeze helps her recover her strength enabling her to fly back to her home planet, and an excited

Anna aphid7

A warm breeze sending Anna safely on her way home

welcome from her whole family. She reports back to her father “I didn’t meet any other forms of intelligent life, but the universe is so big! Who knows what is out there”  Taken as an analogy for the huge number of insects that remain to be discovered, classified and researched, I can only agree with her sentiments.

Anna aphid8

The universe revealed! Can you guess which objects were which planetary features?

Actually, pedantic aphidological quibbles aside, I quite enjoyed the book.  It was a very pleasant surprise to find aphids featuring in such a positive and amusing way in fiction.  It would have been nice if the biology, especially the mouth parts, eyes, and other anatomical features were a bit more true to life, but it is just possible that I am slightly jealous that it had never occurred to me to write a story about an aphid 🙂  If you have children, grand-children, nieces or nephews of a suitable age I would certainly recommend it as a very suitable present and hopefully having read it, or had it read to them, they will learn to love aphids as much as I do.



Dixon, A.F.G. (1973) The Biology of Aphids, Edward Arnold, London


Post script

*I actually bought two copies of The Biology of Aphids, one which was in less good condition.  The sale details included the phrase “having owner’s name on inside front cover”, so I had to buy it just to check that it wasn’t my original copy that had been sold on by whichever student had ‘borrowed’ it.  As I should have expected it wasn’t mine 🙂 but still, it is always handy to have a spare copy in case one goes walkabout like my original did.


Post post script

In one of my emails to my daughter who lives in Australia, I mentioned that I had bought Anna Aphid and to my surprise received the following reply “I bought that book! The boys know about aphids, especially Toby; “ladybugs eat them” “so I was behind the curve yet again!




Filed under Aphidology, Aphids, Book Reviews

Do pea aphids rule the world? Joint UK-French Aphid Meeting Paris

Last week (5th to 6th November 2015) I had the great privilege and pleasure to attend an aphid conference in Paris – my favourite insects and my favourite city – heaven!  The conference was mainly organised by our French colleagues from INRA, under the direction of Jean-Christophe Simon with help from Richard Harrington, recently retired from Rothamsted Research, and a tiny bit of input from me.

The meeting was held at the Societe Nationale D’Horticulture De France, a building cunningly hidden away down a long passageway off the Rue de Grenelle which debuts into a small courtyard where I found the main entrance and was reassured by the sight of the


organisers feverishly getting name tags ready (I was very early as had thought it would take longer to walk there than it actually did) and


a suitably amusingly appropriate sign on the door.

I was greeted enthusiastically by Jean-Christophe, caused a bit of a hiatus by having to have my name badge located and was then pointed gently, but firmly at the coffee 🙂

The rest of the delegates began to arrive some twenty minutes later or so and shortly after we were ushered into the lecture theatre, which was very full.


After getting over the shock of being told that there was no Wifi available (that put paid to my plans for Tweeting), I settled down to enjoy the morning. The conference began with an invited presentation from Takema Fukatsu from Japan who gave us an overview on symbiosis, evolution and biodiversity.   This was then followed by two shorter talks of 12.5 minutes each leading us into the first coffee break.  One of the great things about this conference was, that apart from the plenary presentation, all talks were restricted to 10 minutes with 2.5 minutes for questions.  This meant that we got to hear 40 (yes forty) talks over the two days and that we had refreshment breaks every 75 minutes, (the coffee was excellent).  The refreshment breaks were half an hour long, and lunch was an hour, thus giving delegates plenty of time to mix and chat about their work.

There were just over a 100 delegates coming from eight different countries, although as one might expect, most were from France and the UK. It was great to see so many people working on aphids, although not all could be described as “aphidologists” sensu stricto, but I am sure that everyone there would be happy to be included under that description as sensu lato 🙂 Sadly in the UK the number of aphidologists has declined greatly since I was a student, especially those working on their ecology and morphotaxonomy.

The focus of the talks and posters, of which there were 21, was predominantly on the interactions of aphids with their host plants and natural enemies. The role of symbionts in these interactions and the molecular mechanisms involved was especially highlighted, in particular those involved with the pea aphid, Acyrthosiphon pisum.  Aproximately 40% of the talks were on the pea aphid, and a further 28% on the most pestiferous aphid in the world, Myzus persicae and its ability to develop resistance to pesticides.  Although I find aphid symbionts fascinating, I am a bit concerned that they and the pea aphid seem to be taking over the world!  Given the number of talks, I am not going to review them all.   For those interested the full programme and abstracts can be found here.  Highlights for me were Christoph Vorburger from ETH who gave an entertaining talk about the effect that endosymbionts have in protecting aphids against parasitoids, and making me feel old, Ailsa McLean from Oxford University, whom I first met when she was in her pram (she is the daughter of Ian Mclean with whom I shared a lab when we were PhD students).  I was also very pleased to be chairing the session in which Charles Dedryver (now retired) was speaking about the history of aphidology.  I was less happy that I had to cut his talk short, but my duties left me no other choice 🙂  Despite Charles and I exchanging reprints for almost 40 years, this was the first time that we had ever come face to face.

All in all a fantastic conference and many congratulations to the team from INRA for organising it so well. My one concern, which I touched upon earlier was the predominance of the pea aphid as a model organism and the overriding focus on the molecular aspects of the various interactions.  I find it a little worrying that I can find statements in papers such as “This is an exciting time for pea aphid biologists”  (Brisson, 2010), which hardly indicates a broad viewpoint. As a further indication of an overly narrow focus, during the breaks it was noticeable that of the people who ventured outside, I was the only one turning leaves over and looking for aphids, the others were indulging their nicotine habits.


It is important that as aphidologists, entomologists and ecologists we do not lose sight of the big picture.



Brisson, J.A. (2010) Aphid wing dimorphisms: linking environmental and genetic control of trait variation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 365, 60-616


Sensu stricto in the narrow sense; Sensu lato broadly speaking


A non-entomological post script

The added bonus of having the conference in Paris was that my wife had an excuse to pop over for the weekend and I was able to extend my visit. The weather was fantastic and we had a great time eating, drinking and seeing as many sights as we could fit in.  Luckily the weather was glorious.

Cafe Gourmand

My favourite sort of pudding – Café Gourmand (at Le Café Gourmand)

We rode the funicular to the top of Montmartre, something which despite having visited Paris at least once a year for the last 15 years or so, we had never done. Then after visiting the Montmartre Museum, we walked down to the cemetery.  Paris has some great cemeteries and we never miss the chance to see what curiosities we can find.

Dr Pitchal

A psychoanalyst with a macabre sense of humour Dr. Guy Pitchal (1922-1989), Psychoanalyst known for working with many French celebrities — including the singer Dalida, who is buried nearby.


The Great Nijinsky – looking a bit fed-up?


Emile Zola – we came across his magnificent tomb entirely by accident, after taking a wrong flight of stairs.

La Goulue

Cancan dancer extraordinaire, La Goulue (The Glutton).

Moped inventor

Robert Mayet – Inventor of the moped

Looking for somewhere to eat on Saturday evening we came across a number of shops already preparing for Christmas.

Polar bears

Christmas will apparently soon be with us!

Bees Gare du Nord

Bees get everywhere – no idea what this was about but saw it as we were heading for the Eurostar.



Filed under Aphidology, Aphids

Ten papers that shook my world – Way & Banks (1964) – counting aphid eggs to protect crops

The previous papers in this series (Southwood, 1961; Haukioja & Niemelä 1976; Owen & Weigert, 1976), were all ones that had an influence on my post-PhD career. This one in contrast, had a direct effect on my PhD as well as on my subsequent career, and was, I guess, greatly influential in the publication of the first book to deal with the ecology of insect overwintering (Leather, Walters & Bale, 1993). In 1964 Mike Way, one of the early proponents of Integrated Pest Management (in fact considered to be the father of UK IPM), was working on control methods for the black bean aphid, Aphis fabae.

Bean aphids

Mike had recently joined Imperial College from Rothamsted Research Station where he had been leading research on ways to reduce pesticide use by farmers and growers.   During his time at Rothamsted he had worked closely with a colleague, C.J. Banks on the black bean aphid including studies on the overwintering eggs. As they said in the introduction to their paper, published four years after their experiments; “During the British winter A. fabae survives almost exclusively in the egg stage. Egg mortality might therefore be important in affecting size of populations of this species and in predicting outbreaks”. They investigated the effects of temperature and predators on the mortality of the eggs on the primary host, spindle, Euonymus europaeus, and concluded that the levels of mortality seen would not affect the success of the aphids the following spring. By 1968 (Way & Banks, 1968) they had followed up on the idea and began to feel confident that aphid populations on field beans could be predicted from the number of eggs on the winter host; spindle bushes. The publication of this paper stimulated the setting up of a long-term collaborative project monitoring Aphis fabae eggs on spindle bushes at over 300 locations throughout England south of the River Humber, and monitoring aphid numbers in about 100 bean fields per year.   In 1977 the results were finally published (Way et al., 1977) and the highly successful black bean aphid forecasting system was born. This was further refined by using the Rothamsted aphid suction trap data (Way et al., 1981).

This was also the year that I began my PhD at the University of East Anglia, working on the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi. In the course of my preparatory reading I came across Way & Banks (1964) just in time to set up a plot of bird cherry saplings which I monitored for the next three winters, the first winter’s work resulting in my first publication (Leather, 1980). I subsequently went on to develop the bird cherry aphid forecasting system still used in Finland today (Leather & Lehti, 1981; Leather, 1983; Kurppa, 1989).

Finnish aphid forecasts

Sadly, despite the great success of these two systems there has not been a huge take-up of the idea, although the concept has been looked at for predicting pea aphid numbers in Sweden (Bommarco & Ekbom, 1995) and rosy apple aphids in Switzerland (Graf et al., 2006). Nevertheless, for me this paper was hugely influential and resulted in me counting aphid eggs for over 30 years!


Bommarco, R. & Ekbom, B. (1995) Phenology and prediction of pea aphid infestations on pas. International Journal of Pest Management, 41, 101-113

Graf, B., Höpli, H.U., Höhn, H. and Samietz, J. (2006) Temperature effects on egg development of the rosy apple aphid and forecasting of egg hatch. Entomologia Experimentalis et applicata, 119, 207-211

Haukioja, E. & Niemela, P. (1976) Does birch defend itself actively against herbivores? Report of the Kevo Subarctic Research Station, 13, 44-47.

Kurppa, S. (1989) Predicting outbreaks of Rhopalosiphum padi in Finland. Annales Agriculturae Fenniae 28: 333-348.

Leather, S. R. (1983) Forecasting aphid outbreaks using winter egg counts: an assessment of its feasibility and an example of its application. Zeitschrift fur Angewandte Entomolgie 96: 282-287.

Leather, S. R. & Lehti, J. P. (1981) Abundance and survival of eggs of the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi in southern Finland. Annales entomologici Fennici 47;: 125-130.

Leather, S.R., Bale, J.S., & Walters, K.F.A. (1993) The Ecology of Insect Overwintering, First edn. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Owen, D.F. & Wiegert, R.G. (1976) Do consumers maximise plant fitness? Oikos, 27, 488-492.

Southwood, T.R.E. (1961) The number of species of insect associated with various trees. Journal of Animal Ecology, 30, 1-8.

Way, M.J. & Banks, C.J. (1964) Natural mortality of eggs of the black bean aphid Aphis fabae on the spindle tree, Euonymus europaeus L. Annals of Applied Biology, 54, 255-267.

Way, M. J. & Banks, C. J. (1968). Population studies on the active stages of the black bean aphid, Aphis fabae Scop., on its winter Euonymus europaeus L. Annals of Applied Biology 62, 177-197.

Way, M. J., Cammel, M. E., Taylor, L. R. &Woiwod, I., P. (1981). The use of egg counts and suction trap samples to forecast the infestation of spring sown field beansVicia faba by the black bean aphid, Aphis fabae. Annals of Applied Biology 98: 21-34.

Way, M.J., Cammell, M.E., Alford, D.V., Gould, H.J., Graham, C.W., & Lane, A. (1977) Use of forecasting in chemical control of black bean aphid, Aphis fabae Scop., on spring-sown field beans, Vicia faba L. Plant Pathology, 26, 1-7.


Post script

Michael Way died in 2011 and is greatly missed by all those who knew him well. He examined my PhD thesis, and to my delight and relief, was very complimentary about it and passed it without the need for corrections. I was greatly honoured that a decade or so later I became one of his colleagues and worked alongside him at Silwood Park. He was a very modest and self-deprecating man and never had a bad word to say about anyone. He had a remarkable career, his first paper published in 1948 dealing the effect of DDT on bees (Way & Synge, 1948) and his last paper published in 2011 dealing with ants and biological control (Seguni et al., 2011), a remarkable 63 year span. His obituary can be found here


Filed under Aphidology, Aphids, Ten Papers That Shook My World

Ten Papers that Shook My World – Owen & Weigert (1976) – The things that eat you are good for you

Journal clubs have been around a long time, but as a new PhD student in 1977 it was a new experience for me.  I was thus somewhat uncertain about what was expected from me when my supervisor presented me with a copy of Owen, D.F. & Wiegert, R.G. (1976) Do consumers maximise plant fitness? Oikos, 27, 488-492, and informed me that I was going to present my views on the paper the following month.  In those days organised PhD training programmes in the UK did not exist. Nowadays, PhD students in the UK follow a programme of lectures and workshops ranging from statistics, presentation skills, paper writing, ethics, use of social media, how to run tutorials, IPR, critical appraisal,  etc. etc. Given my lack of experience,  I was a little apprehensive to say the least.  Luckily I had the chance to see how the older members of our research group dealt with their papers in the preceding weeks and was somewhat moe confident about what was expected of me.  I duly read the paper and highlighted the areas that I wanted to critique.


Parts of the Owen & Weigert (1976) paper showing the bits that I highlighted for my critique.

Owen & Weigert’s hypothesis was, that contrary to accepted doctrine, consumers, especially those feeding on trees, were beneficial to their host plants and not harmful.  Coming fresh from an agriculture department where I had been taught that anything that ate a plant was a pest, this was a startling and heretical concept for me to digest!  I remember at the time that I was not particularly convinced by the arguments and that within the group the general consensus was that Denis Owen was a bit of an eccentric.  In fact, the senior members of the group entered into a printed debate in the popular scientific press (McLean et al., 1977; Owen, 1977) which resulted in what I still consider to be the best ever front cover of New Scientist 😉

New Scientist cover

Arguably the best ever front cover of New Scientist

 We were not the only ones who expressed scepticism about Owen’s hypothesis, although experimental rebuttals of Owen’s claim that aphids and trees were in a mutualistic relationship via honeydew production did not appear until some years later (Petelle, 1980; Choudhury, 1984, 1985).  These papers resulted in a series of spirited responses from Owen (Owen & Wiegert, 1982a, b, 1985, 1987).  Some years later, however, Joy Belsky provided further evidence against Owen’s hypothesis (Belsky, 1986,1987; Belsky et al., 1993) and I too entered the fray (Leather, 1988,2000).

Thus by the end of the last century it appeared that all the evidence indicated that if you were a plant, being eaten was not good for you.  On the other hand, if Owen had posed his hypothesis at a population or group level, he might have been able to make a better case for herbivores increasing plant fitness. In an earlier post, in which I wrote about the plant immune response and how plants communicate with each other when attacked and warn their neighbours of potential attack, one could definitely make a stronger case for plants benefitting from being eaten.  Induced resistance can even work at an individual level, some recent work (McArt et al., 2013) has shown that evening primroses (Oenothera biennis) attacked early in the season by the Japanese beetle, Popillia japnonica, become more resistant to attack from seed predators than those that escape early season defoliation. As a result the beetle attacked plants produce more seed than those that escaped attack.  Given that a general measure of fitness is reproductive success (i.e. how many seeds are produced) then in this case, consumers do maximise plant fitness and Denis Owen can have the last word.


Belsky, A.J. (1986) Does herbivory benefit plants? A review of the evidence. American Naturalist 127, 870-892

Belsky, A.J. (1987) The effects of grazing: confounding of ecosystem, community and organism scales. American Naturalist, 129, 777-783.

Belsky, A.J., Carson, W.P., Jensen, C.L. & Fox, G.A, (1993) Overcompensation by plants – herbivore optimization or red herring. Evolutionary Ecology, 7, 109-121.

Choudhury, D. (1984) Aphids and plant fitness – a test of Owen and Wiegert’s hypothesis. Oikos, 43, 401-402.

Choudhury, D. (1985) Aphid honeydew – a re-appraisal of Owen and Wiegert’s hypothesis. Oikos, 45, 287-289.

Leather, S.R. (1988) Consumers and plant fitness: coevolution or competition ? Oikos, 53, 285-288.

Leather, S.R. (2000) Herbivory, phenology, morphology and the expression of sex in trees: who is in the driver’s seat? Oikos, 90, 194-196.

McArt, S.H., Halitschke, R., Salminen, J.P. & Thaler, J.S. (2013)  Leaf herbivory increases plant fitness via induced resistance to seed predators.  Ecology, 94, 966-975.

McLean, I., Carter, N., & Watt, A. (1977) Pests out of Control. New Scientist, 76, 74-75.

Owen, D.F. (1977) Are aphids really plant pests? New Scientist, 76, 76-77.

Owen, D. F. (1980). How plants may benefit from the animals that eat them. Oikos 35: 230-235.

Owen, D.F. & Wiegert, R.G. (1976) Do consumers maximise plant fitness? Oikos, 27, 488-492

Owen, D.F. & Wiegert, R.G. (1982) Beating the walnut tree: more on grass/grazer mutualism. Oikos, 39, 115-116.

Owen, D.F. & Wiegert, R.G. (1982) Grasses and grazers: is there a mutualism ? Oikos, 38, 258-259.

Owen, D.F. & Wiegert, R.G. (1984) Aphids and plant fitness. Oikos, 43, 403.

Owen, D.F. & Wiegert, R.G. (1987). Leaf eating as mutualism. In Insect Outbreaks (ed. by P. Barbosa & J.C. Schultz), pp. 81-95. Academic Press, New York.

Petelle, M. (1980) Aphids and melezitose: a test of Owen’s 1978 hypothesis. Oikos, 35, 127-128.


Post script

Denis Owen died at a relatively young age and for those interested in his career and life, his obituary can be found here.




Filed under Aphids, Ten Papers That Shook My World

Mellow Yellow – Not all aphids live on green leaves

I have written before about aphids and how their quest for the ideal food plant may explain the evolution of host alternation; we find that most aphid species tend to be associated with rapidly growing meristems, or newly flushing leaves (Dixon, 2005). Some aphids are so keen on young plant tissue that they ‘engineer’ youth in their host plants, injecting salivary compounds and forming leaf–rolls, pseudo-galls and galls, all of which act as nutrient sinks and lengthen the time that the modified leaves stay green and nutrient-rich

leaf roll Rhopalosiphum

 Leaf-roll caused by Rhopalosiphum padi on bird cherry, Prunus padus.

Leaf roll Myzus cerasi

Pronounced leaf roll pseudo-gall caused by Myzus cerasi on Prunus avium.

Non host-alternating (autoecious) aphids, such as the sycamore aphid Drepanosiphum platanoidis, the maple aphid, Periphyllus testudinaceus, or the birch aphid, Euceraphis punctipennis, have no such escape route; they are confined to their tree host for the year, albeit, they can, if they ‘wish’, fly to another tree of the same species, but essentially they are held hostage by the their host plant. As the season progresses, leaf nutritional and physical properties change; going from young tender green leaves, with high nitrogen and water contents, to mature, tough leaves, low in nitrogen and water to yellow senescing leaves with again, higher nitrogen levels (Awmack & Leather, 2002) and finally of course, dead brown leaves of no nutritional value.

Seasonal changes

Sycamore and maple aphids, enter a state of suspended animation ‘summer aestivation’ (Essig, 1952; Dixon, 1963), whilst birch and poplar aphids, whose hosts plants often produce new growth during the year, ‘track’ these new leaves (Wratten, 1974; Gould et al., 2007). As far as these aphids are concerned young tissue is their best food source, with senescent tissue being second best and mature leaves being least favoured. During the summer they will, however, take advantage of mature leaves that are prematurely senescing, such as those attacked by leaf diseases such as tar spot. I have often found sycamore aphids feeding and reproducing on these infected leaves whilst those aphids on neighbouring mature leaves remain in aestivation.

Tar spot 2

Effects of tar spot on sycamore leaves

Host-alternating (heteroecious) aphids on the other hand are somewhat different. As their life cycle includes a programmed migration back to their primary tree host in autumn, those autumn morphs (oviparae) are adapted to senescent tissue (Leather & Dixon, 1982, Kundu & Dixon, 1993, 1994). Similarly, the spring morphs (fundatrices and fundatrigeniae) are adapted to young leaves and find it difficult or impossible, to make a living on senescent leaves.
Morphs and host age

There are yet other aphids, such as the green spruce aphid Elatobium abietinum, the pine aphid, Eulachnus agilis and the black pecan aphid, Melanocallis caryaefoliae, that are senescence specialists. In contrast to the flush specialists, these aphids engineer senescence, also using salivary compounds,  and are unable to survive on young foliage (Bliss, 1973; Fisher, 1987; Cottrell et al., 2009).

Elatobium in action

Elatobium abietinum ‘engineering’ senescence on spruce needles and avoiding young flushing tissue.

It is interesting to speculate that perhaps these tree-dwelling non host-alternating aphids are secondarily derived from the autumn part of the life-cycle of host-alternating aphids. After all, if non host-alternating aphids on herbaceous host plants are off-shoots of the summer part of the host-alternating life-cycle why not the other way round. There is just so much more to learn about aphids. Yet another reason why I love aphids so much 😉


Awmack, C.S. & Leather, S.R. (2002) Host plant quality and fecundity in herbivorous insects. Annual Review of Entomology, 47, 817-844.

Bliss, M., Yendol, W.G., & Kearby, W.H. (1973) Probing behaviour of Eulachnus agilis and injury to Scotch pine. Journal of Economic Entomology, 66, 651-655.

Cottrell, T.E., Wood, B.W. & Ni, X. (2009) Chlorotic feeding injury by the Black Pecan Aphid (Hemiptera: Aphididae) to pecan foliage promotes aphid settling and nymphal development. Environmental Entomology, 38, 411-416.

Dixon, A.F.G. (1963) Reproductive activity of the sycamore aphid, Drepanosiphum platanoides (Schr) (Hemiptera, Aphididae). Journal of Animal Ecology, 32, 33-48.

Dixon, A.F.G. (2005) Insect Herbivore-Host Dynamics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Fisher, M. (1987) The effect of previously infested spruce needles on the growth of the green spruce aphid, Elatobium abietinum. Annals of Applied Biology, 111, 33-41.

Gould, G.G., Jones, C.G., Rifleman, P., Perez, A., & Coelman, J.S. (2007) Variation in Eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides Bartr.) phloem sap content caused by leaf development may affect feeding site selection behaviour of the aphid, Chaitophorous populicola Thomas (Homoptera: Aphididae). Environmental Entomology, 36, 1212-1225.

Kundu, R. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1993) Do host alternating aphids know which plant they are on? Ecological Entomology, 18, 61-66.

Kundu, R. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1994) Feeding on their primary host by return migrants of the host alternating aphid, Cavariella aegopodii. Ecological Entomology, 19, 83-86.

Leather, S.R. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1981) Growth, survival and reproduction of the bird-cherry aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi, on it’s primary host. Annals of applied Biology, 99, 115-118.

Wratten, S.D. (1974) Aggregation in the birch aphid, Euceraphis punctipennis (Zett.) in relation to food quality. Journal of Animal Ecology, 43, 191-198.


Post script

A lot of what I describe comes from a talk I gave in 2009 at a workshop in Oxford on autumn colours (the output of which was Archetti, M., Döring, T.F., Hagen, S.B., Hughes, N.M., Leather, S.R., Lee, D.W., Lev-Yadun, S., Manetas, Y., Ougham, H.J., Schaberg, P.G., & Thomas, H. (2009) Unravelling the evolution of autumn colours: an interdisciplinary approach. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 24, 166-173. I always meant to write the talk up as an Opinion piece but procrastination set in badly. I was somewhat annoyed with myself when earlier this year this excellent piece by the legendary ecologist and entomologist, Tom White, appeared; I have only myself to blame, six years is a very long bit of procrastination 😉

White, T.C.R. (2015) Senescence-feeders: a new trophic sub-guild of insect herbivores Journal of Applied Entomology, 139, 11-22.


Post post script

This post is dedicated to my eldest son, Sam, who died quietly in his sleep, at a tragically young age, December 23rd 2010.   It would have been his birthday on the 21st May.  Despite being a molecular biologist, (he worked at the Sanger Institute), he was as green as you can get, a great naturalist and conservationist, with an incredibly gentle soul. He strongly believed in conserving the World’s natural resources and amused colleagues by sticking up signs in the toilets at the Sanger, which read “If its yellow let it mellow, if its brown flush it down”.



He is sorely missed by us all. He also had more Nature papers than me 😉

Parkhill, J., Achtman, M., James, K.D. et al., (2000) Complete DNA sequence of a serogroup A strain of Neisseria meningitides. Nature, 404, 502-506

Parkhill, J., Dougan, G. , James, K.D. (2001) Complete genome sequence of a multiple drug resistant Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi CT18. Nature, 413, 848-852.

Parkhill, J., Wren, B.W., Thomson, N.R. et al., (2001) Genome sequence of Yersinia pestis, the causative agent of plague. Nature, 413, 523-527.

Parkhill, J., Sebaihia, M., Preston, A. et al., (2003) Comparative analysis of the genome sequences of Bordetella pertussis,   Bordetella parapertussis and Bordetella bronchiseptica. Nature Genetics, 35, 32-40

Wood, V., Gwilliam, R. Rajandream, M.A. et al., (2002) The genome sequence of Schizosaccharomyces pombe . Nature, 415, 871-880




Filed under Aphidology, Aphids