Tag Archives: birch

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

Data I am never going to publish in peer-reviewed journals

I have got to that stage in my career where retirement is no longer a distant speck on the horizon; something that 20 years ago I never even thought about, but which now I am actually looking forward to reaching. Don’t get me wrong, I have, in the main, enjoyed what I have been paid to do for the last 40 years, but I’m looking forward to a change of pace and a change of priorities. I’m not planning on leaving entomology and ecology, or putting my collecting equipment in a cupboard, throwing my field guides away and burning all my reprints in a huge bonfire. Nor do I plan on deleting my EndNote™ files and database when I retire to our house in Languedoc-Roussillon to sit next to the pool with a never-emptying glass of red wine and gently pickle myself in the sun*. I’m just looking forward to approaching it in a different way; my plan is to stop initiating the writing scientific papers, but instead to expand on the outreach, to blog more and to write books for a wider audience. I want to spread the joys and wonders of entomology to the world, and hopefully, supplement my pension a bit to make sure that I can keep that glass filled with red wine and heat the swimming pool in the winter 🙂

I’m planning a gradual retirement, a slow(ish) canter towards the day (September 30th 2020) when I finally vacate my university office and move full-time into my converted attic in the Villa Lucie surrounded by my books and filing cabinets with a superb view of the mountains.


The view from my study to be – I will have to stand up to see it, but exercise is good for you 🙂

I have already reached a number of milestones, I took on my last ever PhD student (as Director of Studies) this month (June 7th) and submitted my final grant application as a PI (June 10th).


I must admit that it is a bit of funny feeling, but a remarkably rewarding one in many ways. I look at my former colleagues who have already retired productively and enjoyably, and I’m envious, so I know that I am making the right decision despite the slight feeling of apprehension. I now have a dilemma. As Jeff Ollerton points out, when you have been around a while, in my case it is almost 40 years since I started my PhD**, you build up a substantial amount of data, especially, if as I have, you have supervised over 150 undergraduate research projects, an equal number of MSc research projects and over 50 PhD students. Much of these data are fragmentary, not significant or even lost (sadly when I moved from Imperial College, they threw away the hard copies of my undergraduate projects, although I can remember what some of the lost data were about). My ten year sycamore and bird cherry aphid field study from my time in Scotland (1982-1992) remains largely unpublished and my huge twenty year sycamore herbivores data set from Silwood Park (1992-2012) is in the same boat, although parts of the data are ‘out on loan’ to former students of mine and I hope will be analysed and published before I retire.

This leaves however, the data, some of it substantial, which I would like to see the light of day, e.g. a whole set of rabbit behaviour data that I collected one summer with the help of an undergraduate and MSc student, which surprisingly revealed novel insights. Other data, perhaps not as novel, may be of interest to some people and there is a whole bunch of negative and non-significant data, which as Terry McGlynn highlights over on Small Pond Science, does not necessarily mean that it is of no use.   I have, as an example of fragmentary, not entirely earth-shattering data, the following to offer. Whilst monitoring aphid egg populations on bird cherry and sycamore trees, in Scotland between 1982 and 1992, I occasionally sampled overwintering eggs of Euceraphis betulae, on some nearby birch (Betula pendula) trees and of Tuberculoides annulatus, on an oak tree (Quercus robur) in my back garden in Peebles.

As far as I know there are no published data on the overwintering egg mortality of these two aphids. Although novel for these two aphid species, the observation of the way the egg populations behave over the winter and the factors causing the mortality have already been described by me for another aphid species (Leather, 1980, 1981). I am therefore unlikely to get them published in any mainstream journal, although I am sure that one of the many predatory journals out here would leap at the chance to take my money and publish the data in the Journal of Non-Peer-Reviewed Entomology 🙂 I could of course publish the data in one of the many ‘amateur’ type, but nevertheless peer-reviewed journals, such as Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, The Entomologist’s Record, The Entomologist’s Gazette or the British Journal of Entomology & Natural History, which all have long and distinguished histories, three of which I have published in at least once (Leather & Brotherton 1987, Leather, 1989, 2015), but which have the disadvantage of not being published with on-line versions except for those few issues that have been scanned into that great resource, The Biodiversity Heritage Library, so would remain largely inaccessible for future reference.

I thus offer to the world these data collected from four Betula pendula trees in Roslin Glen Nature Reserve in Scotland between 1982 and 1986. On each sampling occasion, beginning at the end of October, 200 buds were haphazardly selected and the number of eggs present in the bud axils recorded. Sampling continued until egg hatch began in the spring.


Figure 1. Mean number of eggs per 100 buds of the aphid Euceraphis betulae present on four Betula pendula trees at Roslin Glen Nature Reserve Scotland***.

The number of eggs laid on the trees varied significantly between years (F = 20.3, d.f. = 4/15, P <0.001) ranging from 12.75 eggs/100 buds in 1983-84 to 683 eggs/100 buds in 1986-87. Mortality occurred at a regular rate over the winter and ranged from between 60% in 1985-86 to 83 % in 1984-85, averaging out at 74% over the five-year study.

So in conclusion, no startling new insights, but just some additional data about aphid egg mortality to add to the somewhat sparse records to date (Leather, 1992). Perhaps it is time for me to write another review 🙂


Leather, S.R. (1980) Egg survival in the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi. Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 27, 96-97.

Leather, S.R. (1981) Factors affecting egg survival in the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi. Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 30, 197-199.

Leather, S.R. (1986) Insects on bird cherry I. The bird cherry ermine moth, Yponomeuta evonymellus (L.). Entomologist’s Gazette, 37, 209-213.

Leather, S.R. (1989) Phytodecta pallida (L.) (Col.,Chrysomelidae) – a new insect record for bird cherry (Prunus padus). Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, 125, 17-18.

Leather, S.R. (1992) Aspects of aphid overwintering (Homoptera: Aphidinea: Aphididae). Entomologia Generalis, 17, 101-113.

Leather, S.R. (2015) An entomological classic – the Pooter or insect aspirator. British Journal of Entomology & Natural History, 28, 52-54.


*although in light of the recent horrific BREXIT vote this may now not be as simple as it might have been 😦

**I must confess that I haven’t actually published all the data that I collected during my PhD. I rather suspect that this will never see the light of day 🙂

***Data from 1986-87 are not shown as their inclusion makes it very difficult to see the low years. I can assure you however, that the mortality rate shows the same patterns as the other years.



Filed under EntoNotes, Science writing

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

Ten Papers that Shook My World – Haukioja & Niemelä (1976) – the plant “immune response”

To me this is a landmark paper, both personally and for ecology in general.   I first came across it in the second year of my PhD at the University of East Anglia (1978) and given where it was published, would probably never have seen it if my supervisor, Tony Dixon, hadn’t had a collaborative link with Erkki Haukioja of Turku University (Finland).

That individual plants of the same species are more or less susceptible (constitutive or innate resistance) to pests and diseases has been known for a very long time (e.g. Painter, 1958; Beck, 1965) and has been exploited by plant breeders as part of many pest management programmes.  Despite the stunning footage of the questing bramble in David Attenborough’s classic documentary The Private Life of Plants, plants are often thought of as passive organisms.  The idea that plants might actually respond directly and quickly to insect attack was more in the realms of science fiction than science fact, but this all changed in the 1970s. In 1972 a short paper in Science (Green & Ryan, 1972) suggested that plants might not be as passive as previously thought. Green & Ryan working in the laboratory with the Colorado Potato Beetle, Leptinotarsus decemlineata, showed that when tomato leaves were damaged by beetle feeding the levels of a proteinase inhibitor were raised not just in the wounded leaves but in nearby leaves as well. As proteinase inhibitors were well-known to be part of the plant defence system, they hypothesised that this was a direct response of the plant to repel attack by pests and that it might be a useful tool in developing new pest management approaches. So what does this have to do with two Finnish entomologists?

Erkki Haukioja and his long-term collaborator, Pekka Niemelä were working on an important lepidopteran defoliator of birch, in the far north of Finland, at the Kevo Subarctic Research Station.Kevo


The defoliator that they were working on was the autumnal moth, now Epirrita autumnata, but then Oporinia autumnata.



The autumnal moth, as with many tree-feeding Lepidoptera, has a 7-10 year population cycle (Ruohmäki et al., 2000).

Population cycles

Natural enemies are often cited as the causes of these cycles (Turchin et al., 1999) although other factors such as weather (Myers, 1998) or even sunspot activity (Ruohmäki et al., 2000)


have also been suggested. It had also been suggested that the marked population cycles of the larch bud moth, Zeiraphere diniana were caused by changes in the susceptibility of their host trees after defoliation (Benz, 1974). In 1975, Haukioja and his colleague Hakala, attempting to explain the cyclical nature of the E. autumnata population cycles wondered if they were being driven by the insects themselves causing changes in the levels of chemical defence in the trees. To test this Erkki and Pekka did two neat field experiments, remember Green & Ryan’s work was laboratory based and did not test the effects seen on the insects. They first fed Epirrita larvae on foliage from previously defoliated and undefoliated birch trees and found that the pupae that developed from those larvae fed on previously defoliated trees were lighter than those that had fed on previously undefoliated trees (Hauikioja & Niemelä, 1976). At the same time they also did an experiment where they damaged leaves but then rather than feeding the larvae on those leaves, fed them on nearby adjacent undamaged leaves and compared them with larvae feeding on leaves from trees where no damage had occurred. Those larvae feeding on undamaged leaves adjacent to damaged leaves grew significantly more slowly than those feeding on leaves that came from totally undamaged trees (Haukioja & Niemelä, 1977). So pretty convincing evidence that the trees were responding directly to insect damage and altering their chemistry to become more resistant, i.e. an induced defence and not a constitutive one.

Their results had a major impact on the field. The great and the good from around the world found it a fascinating subject area and a plethora of papers investigating the effects of insect feeding on induced defences in birch and willow trees soon followed (e.g. Fowler & Lawton, 1984a; Rhoades, 1985; Hartley & Lawton, 1987) and not forgetting the original researchers (e.g. Haukioja & Hahnimäki, 1984). I, with the aid of colleagues, also added my ‘two pennorth’ (I did say the idea shook my world) by extending the concept to conifers (Leather et al., 1987; Trewhella et al., 1997). The terms rapid induced resistance and delayed induced resistance soon entered the language, the first to describe those changes that occurred within minutes of feeding damage and the second, those that did not take effect until the following year (Haukioja & Hahnmäki, 1984; Ruohmäki et al., 1992) Such was the interest generated by the topic that by 1989 there were enough studies for a major review to be published (Karban & Myers, 1989).

Controversy reared its ugly head early on when Doug Rhoades suggested that not only did plants resist insect attack actively but that they could talk to each other and warn their neighbours that the ‘bad guys’ were in the neighbourhood (Rhoades, 1983, 1985). This sparked a brief but lively debate (e.g. Fowler & Lawton, 1984b, 1985). Ironically it is now taken as axiomatic that plants talk to each other using a range of chemical signals (van Hulten et al., 2006; Heil & Ton, 2008) as well as informing the natural enemies of the pests that a suitable food source is available (e.g. Edwards & Wratten, 1983; Amo et al., 2013; Michereff et al., 2013).

Ton cartoon

A great cartoon from Jurriaan Ton at Sheffield University. https://www.shef.ac.uk/aps/staff-and-students/acadstaff/ton-jurriaan

We now have a greatly increased understanding of the various metabolic pathways that induce these defences against different insect pests (e.g. Smith & Boyko, 2007) and can, by genetically manipulating levels of compounds such as jasmonic and salicyclic acids or even applying them directly to plants affect herbivorous insect communities and their natural enemies thus improving crop protection (e.g. Thaler, 1999; Cao et al., 2014; Mäntyllä, 2014). No wonder this was an idea that shook my world, and yours.


Post script

The study of induced plant defences or resistance is now dominated by molecular biologists and current practice is to use the term priming and not induced defence. The increased understanding that this new generation has brought to the field is undeniable but I always feel it is a great shame that they seem to have forgotten those early pioneers in the field.



Amo, L., Jansen, J.J., Van Dam, N.M., Dicke, M., & Visser, M.E. (2013) Birds exploit herbivore-induced plant volatiles to locate herbivorous prey. Ecology Letters, 16: 1348-1355.

Baldwin, I.T. & Schultz, J.C. (1983) Rapid changes in tree leaf chemistry, induced by damage: evidence for communication between plants. Science, 221, 277-279.

Beck, S.D. (1965) Resistance of plants to insects. Annual Review of Entomology, 10, 207-232.

Benz, G. (1974). Negative Ruckkoppelung durch Raum-und Nahrungskonkurrenz sowie zyklische Veranderung. Zeitschrift für Angewandte Enomologie, 76: 196-228.

Cao, H.H., Wang, S.H., & Liu, T.X. (2014) Jasomante- and salicylate-induced defenses in wheat affect host preference and probing behavior but not performance of the grain aphid, Sitobion avenae. Insect Science, 21, 47-55.

Edwards, P.J. & Wratten, S.D. (1983) Wound induced defences in plants and their consequences for patterns of insect grazing. Oecologia, 59: 88-93.

Fowler, S.V. & Lawton, J.H. (1984a) Foliage preferences of birch herbivores: a field manipulation experiment. Oikos, 42: 239-248.

Fowler, S.V. & Lawton, J.H. (1984b) Trees don’t talk : do they even murmur? Antenna, 8: 69-71.

Fowler, S.V. & Lawton, J.H. (1985) Rapidly induced defences and talking trees: the devils’ advocate position. American Naturalist, 126: 181-195.

Green, T.R. & Ryan, C.A. (1972) Wound induced proteinase inhibitor in plant leaves: a possible defense mechanism against insects. Science: 175: 776-777.

Hartley, S.E. & Lawton, J.H. (1987) Effects of different types of damage on the chemistry of birch foliage and the responses of birch feeding insects. Oecologia, 74: 432-437.

Haukioja, E. & Hakala, T. (1975) Herbivore cycles and periodic outbreaks. Report of the Kevo Subarctic Research Station, 12: 1-9

Haukioja, E. & Hanhimäki, S. (1984) Rapid wound induced resistance in white birch (Betula pubescens) foliage to the geometrid Epirrita autumnata: a comparison of trees and moths within and outside the outbreak range of the moth. Oecologia, 65, 223-228.

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

Haukioja, E. & Niemelä, P. (1977). Retarded growth of a geometrid larva after mechanical damage to leaves of its host tree. Annales Zoologici Fennici 14: 48-52.

Heil, M. & Ton, J. (2008) Long-distance signalling in plant defence. Trends in Plant Science, 13: 264-272.

Karban, R. & Myers, J.H. (1989) Induced plant responses to herbivory. Annual Review of Ecology & Systematics, 20: 331-348.

Leather, S.R., D., W.A., & Forrest, G.I. (1987) Insect-induced chemical changes in young lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta): the effect of previous defoliation on oviposition, growth and survival of the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea. Ecological Entomology, 12: 275-281.

Mäntyllä, E., Blande, J.D., & Klemola, T. (2014) Does application of methyl jasmonate to birch mimic herbivory and attract insectivorous birds in nature? Arthropod-Plant Interactions, 8, 143-153.

Michereff, M.F.F., Borges, M., Laumann, R.A., Dinitz, I.R., & Blassioli-Moraes, M.C. (2013) Influence of volatile compounds from herbivore-damaged soybean plants on searching behavior of the egg parasitoid Telonomus podisi. Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 147: 9-17.

Trewhella, K.E., Leather, S.R., & Day, K.R. (1997) Insect induced resistance in lodgepole pine: effects on two pine feeding insects. Journal of Applied Entomology, 121: 129-136.

Myers, J. H. (1998). Synchrony in outbreaks of forest lepidoptera: a possible example of the Moran effect. Ecology 79: 1111-1117.

Painter, R.H. (1958) Resistance of plants to insects. Annual Review of Entomology, 3: 267-290.

Rhoades, D.F. (1983) Responses of alder and willow to attack by tent caterpillar and webworms: evidence for pheromonal sensitivity of willows. American Chemical Society Symposium Series, 208: 55-68.

Rhoades, D.F. (1985) Offensive-defensive interactions between herbivores and plants: their relevance in herbivore population dynamics and ecological theory. American Naturalist, 125: 205-238.

Ruohomäki, K., Hanhimäki, S., Haukioja, E., Iso-iivari, L., & Neuvonen, S. (1992) Variability in the efficiency of delayed inducible resistanec in mountain birch. Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 62: 107-116.

Ruohmäki, K., Tanhuanpää, M., Ayres, M.P., Kaitaniemi, P., Tammaru, T. & Haukioja, E. (2000) Causes of cyclicity of Epirrita autumnata (Lepidoptera, Geometridae): grandiose theory and tedious practice. Population Ecology, 42: 211-223

Smith, C.M. & Boyko, E.V. (2007) The molecular basis of plant resistance and defence responses to aphid feeding: current status. Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 122: 1-16.

Thaler, J. (1999) Induced resistance in agricultural crops: effects of Jasmonic acid on herbivory and yield in tomato plants. Environmental Entomology, 28, 30-37.

Turchin, P., Taylor, A. D. &Reeve, J. D. (1999). Dynamical role of predators in population cycles of a forest insect: an experimental test. Science 285: 1068-1071.

Van Hulten, M., Pelser, M., van Loon, L.C., Pieterse, C.M.J. & Ton, J. (2006) Costs and benefits of priming for defense in Arabidopsis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 103: 5602-5607.



Filed under Entomological classics, EntoNotes, Ten Papers That Shook My World, Uncategorized

Not all Aphids are Pests

Unfortunately when you mention the word aphid most people’s first thought is PEST!  It is true that they are perhaps the most important insect pests of crops

Larson             Punk aphid

in temperate regions of the world, and that in the UK they are serious pests of cereals, sugar beet, beans, vegetables and glasshouse crops.  It has been estimated that crop losses due to feeding damage and/or virus transmission exceed £100 million per annum http://www.scri.ac.uk/research/pp/pestanddisease/insectmiteecology/virusvectorinteractions .  On the other hand this is down to only about 250 species which out of a total of 5000 described species is not very many (about 5%).  Not only are most aphids playing useful roles in ecosystems acting as food sources to other insects, arthropods and dare I say it, vertebrates 😉 . They also play an important part in the decomposition cycle (Choudhury, 1985).  The thing that most people don’t realise is that some aphids are incredibly rare. Some are rare because of their close associations with rare plants, others rare because of a complex relationship with ants https://simonleather.wordpress.com/2013/12/05/not-all-aphids-live-on-leaves/ and some for no apparent reason at all.  For example, there are two aphid species that live on bird cherry (Prunus padus),  Rhopalosiphum padi, an extremely common aphid, host-alternating between bird cherry and grasses, and a major pest of cereals in temperate countries (Leather et al., 1989) and Myzus padellus, host-alternating between bird cherry and members of the Labiatae (Galeopsis spp. (Hemp nettle)) and Scrophulariaceae (Pedicularis spp. and Rhinanthus sp., members of the snapdragon family).  In all my many years of sampling bird cherry I have never seen Myzus padellus, yet their life-cycles and habits are strikingly similar, so why is the latter so rare?  No one knows.

Similarly, on birch we find, not very often because it is so rare, Monaphis antennata , which unlike most aphids, lives as a nymph (immature) on the upper side of birch leaves, possibly


to escape natural enemies as the much more common species of birch aphids, Euceraphis punctipennis and Betulaphis quadrituberculata like the majority of leaf-feeding aphids, both live on the underside of leaves, which is where aphid predators normally forage (Hopkins & Dixon 1997). I have seen this aphid once, shown to me by the late Nigel Barlow http://newzealandecology.org/nzje/free_issues/NZJEcol30_1_1.pdf  when he visited me at Silwood Park in the late 1990s.  Despite repeated visits to the same trees that we found Monaphis on, I have never seen it again.  So far no one has been able to explain why it is so rare (Hopkins et al., 1998).  Interestingly enough, apart from keys and identification manuals, it has rarely been written about; Web of Knowledge reveals only four research papers on it.

There are many more rare aphids hiding out there, a number of which have only ever been seen by the entomologist who first described them and no doubt even more who have not yet been found, as is the cases with many more insect species  – not enough insect taxonomists, not enough funding.

Choudhury, D. (1985) Aphid honeydew – a re-appraisal of Owen and Wiegert’s hypothesis. Oikos, 45, 287-289. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3565718?uid=3738032&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21103382740253

Hille Ris Lambers, D. & Rogerson, J.P. (1946) A new British aphid from Prunus padus L.  Myzus padellus sp n. (Hemiptera, Aphididae). Proceedings of the Royal Entomological Society of London, 15, 101-105 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-3113.1946.tb00833.x/abstract

Hopkins, G.W. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1997) Enemy-free space and the feeding niche of an aphid. Ecological Entomology, 22, 271-274. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1365-2311.1997.00075.x/full

Hopkins, G.W. & Dixon, A.F.G. (2000)  Feeding site location in birch aphids (Sternorrhyncha: Aphididae): the simplicity and reliability of cues.  European Journal of Entomology, 97, 279-280 http://www.eje.cz/pdfs/eje/2000/02/19.pdf

Hopkins, G.W., Thacker, J.I., & Dixon, A.F.G. (1998) Limit to the abundance of rare species: an experimental test with a tree aphid. Ecological Entomology, 23, 386-390. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1365-2311.1998.00163.x/full

Leather, S.R., Walters, K.F.A., & Dixon, A.F.G. (1989) Factors determing the pest status of the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi (L.) (Hemiptera: Aphididae), in Europe: a study and review. Bulletin of Entomological Research, 79, 345-360. http://journals.cambridge.org/download.php?file=%2FBER%2FBER79_03%2FS0007485300018344a.pdf&code=8d6d2144666846ebb5d589f01343f27c


Filed under Aphidology, Aphids