Tag Archives: natural enemies

Not all aphids get eaten – “bottom-up” wins this time

In the lecture that I introduce aphids to our entomology MSc students I show them two quotes that illustrate the prodigious reproductive potential of these fantastic animals.

“In a season the potential descendants of one female aphid contain more substance than 500 million stout men “– Thomas Henry Huxley (1858) and “In a year aphids could form a layer 149 km deep over the surface of the earth.  Thank God for limited resources and natural enemies” – Richard Harrington (1994).

I was a little discomfited whilst researching this article to find that both Huxley and I had been short-changed, although the original quote does hint at the mortality factors that an aphid clone faces during its life.

The original words and the morphed ‘quote’


Both these quotes acknowledge the contribution that both bottom-up and top-down factors have on aphid populations.  For those not familiar with the ecological jargon, ecologists have at times over the last 40 years or so, got quite territorial* about whether herbivorous insect populations are regulated by top-down e.g. predators or bottom-up e.g. host plant quality, factors (e.g. Hunter & Price, 1992).  Who is in charge of an aphid clone’s destiny, natural enemies or the food plant?

Aphids are the favourite food of several insect species; ladybirds (but not all species), lacewing larvae, hoverfly larvae, and also the larvae of some Cecidomyiid flies (Aphidoletes spp.), and Chamaemyiid flies (e.g. Leucopis glyphinivora).  They are also attacked by other Hemipteran species, such as Anthocoris nemorum.   Those insects that make a living almost solely from aphids, are termed aphidophagous and every three years you can, if you feel like it, attend an international conference devoted to the subject 🙂

As well as these specialist predators, aphids are also preyed upon by more generalist predators, such as carabid and staphylinid beetles, harvestmen and spiders. Aphids also provide a nutritious snack for birds and bats.  Faced with all these hungry and voracious predators you might wonder why it is that aphids ever get numerous enough to become pests.  There are two answers, their fantastic reproductive rates and second, aphids, despite appearing soft and squishy, do have anti-predator defence mechanisms.  These range from kicking predators in the face, dropping off the plant, gumming up the jaws of predators by smearing them with wax from their siphunculi, and even jumping out of the way of the predator (Dixon, 1958).  On top of all that,  many are extremely unpalatable and even poisonous.

Some population modelling work from the 1970s explains why aphids can often become pests, as well as introducing us to the concept of population dynamics geography; the endemic and epidemic ridges, and my favourite, the natural enemy ravine (Southwood & Comins, 1976).

The geography of population dynamics from Southwood & Comins (1976)


They suggested that if enough predators are already present in the habitat or arrive shortly after the aphids, then the aphid population either goes extinct or only reaches the “endemic ridge”.  The phenomenal rate at which aphids can reproduce under favourable conditions, usually gets them past the “natural enemy ravine” and up into “epidemic ridge” with only a slight slowdown in population growth.   Evidence for the “natural enemy ravine” is not very convincing and I feel that the suggestion that the dip in population growth at the start of the season is due to intermittent immigration by winged aphids and not the action of polyphagous predators (Carter & Dixon, 1981) is pretty convincing.   That said, later modelling work suggested that the subsequent growth of aphid populations could be slowed down by the action of natural enemies Carter et al., 1982).

Aphids, despite their ability to produce baby aphids extremely quickly, are not equally abundant all year round. Those of us who want to collect aphids know that the best time of year is early in the season, spring and early summer.  This is the time when the plant sap is flowing quickly and is rich in nutrients, especially nitrogen, which aphids need in large quantities.    A characteristic of aphid populations is the way they suddenly disappear during July, a phenomenon known as the “mid-summer or mid-season crash”.  This is not just a phenomenon confined to aphids living on ephemeral herbaceous hosts, it happens to tree-dwelling aphids too e.g. the sycamore aphid, Drepanoisphum platanoidis.  At Silwood Park, where I monitored sycamore aphid populations on fifty-two trees for twenty years**, I saw the same pattern of a rapid build-up followed by an equally rapid collapse every year.  The pattern was the same in both high population and low population years and happened at pretty much the same time every year.  Herbivorous insects are, as you might expect, strongly

High and low population years of sycamore aphid, Drepanosiphum platanoidis at Silwood Park

affected by the quality of their host plant, the availability of nitrogen in the leaves being of most importance (Awmack & Leather, 2002).  Aphids are no exception, and their whole-life cycle is adapted to the ever-changing, but predictable availability of soluble nitrogen and water in their host plants (Dixon, 1977).  Plants become less suitable for aphids as their tissues mature and they lock their nitrogen away in the leaves and other structures, rather than transporting it around in the phloem as they do in spring and autumn (Dixon, 1976).

Aphids respond in two ways to a decline in the nutritional quality of their host plant, they reduce the number of offspring they produce (e.g. Watt, 1979) and those offspring they produce are winged (e.g. Parry, 1977), or if already winged, more likely to take flight and seek new better quality host plants (e.g. Dixon, 1969; Jarosik & Dixon, 1999).  In some aphids there is also an increase in intrinsic mortality (e.g. Kift et al., 1998).

The mid-season crash is not confined to abundant and common aphids, rare aphids show exactly the same changes in their populations, and this is similarly attributed to changes in the nutritional quality of the aphid host plant leading to increased dispersal (e.g. Kean, 2002).

Population crash of the rare aphid Paradoxaphis plagianthi in New Zealand (data from Kean, 2002).

Although some authors, notably Alison Karley and colleagues have suggested that it is the action of natural enemies and not host nutrition that drives the mid-season crash (Karley et al., 2003, 2004), the overwhelming evidence points to the production of winged (alate) morphs and their dispersal, being the major factor in causing the mid-season crash as the graphs below illustrate.

Cereal aphids on wheat showing increased alate production coinciding and subsequent population crash on cereal crops. Data from Wratten, 1975).

Green spruce aphid, Elatobium abietinum on Norway spruce at Silwood Park, showing the population crash and associated increase in the number of winged aphids. Data from Leather & Owuor (1996).

Green spruce aphid in Ireland, population crash associated with marked decline in fecundity and production of winged forms. Data from Day (1984)

Data presented by Way & Banks (1968) might lend some support to the idea that natural enemies cause the mid-season crash.  A close examination of the data however, which might at first glance suggest that keeping natural enemies away, allows aphid populations to prosper, reveals that the process of excluding natural enemies also prevents the dispersal of the winged aphids, which have no choice but to stay on the host plant and reproduce there.

Aphis fabae populations on Spindle bushes from Way & Banks (1968). Top line shows the population kept free of predators until August 2nd, bottom line, exposed to predators.

Moreover, as the authors themselves state “the rise to peak density in each year, coincided with an enormous increase in the proportion of individuals destined to become alatae” (Way & Banks, 1968).   I do not dispute that natural enemies have an effect on aphid populations, but in my opinion, the evidence does not support the hypothesis that they are the driving force behind the mid-season crash.  Rather, the major factor is the reduction in host quality, caused by a decline in the nutritional status of the plant and overcrowding of the aphids, leading to reduced fecundity and an increase in winged dispersers.

I don’t deny that the natural enemies do a very good mopping-up job of those aphids that are left behind, but they are not the force majeure by any stretch of the imagination. Most aphids do not get eaten 🙂



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

Carter, N. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1981) The natural enemy ravine in cereal aphid population dynamics: a consequence of predator activity or aphid biology? Journal of Animal Ecology, 50, 605-611.

Carter, N., Gardner, S.M., Fraser, A.M., & Adams, T.H.L. (1982) The role of natural enemies in cereal aphid population dynamics. Annals of Applied Biology, 101, 190-195.

Day, K.R. (1984) The growth and decline of a population of the spruce aphid Elatobium abietinum during a three  study, and the changing pattern of fecundity, recruitment and alary polymorphism in a Northern Ireland Forest. Oecologia, 64, 118-124.

Dixon, A.F.G. (1958) 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. (1969) Population dynamics of the sycamore aphid Drepanosiphum platanoides (Schr) (Hemiptera: Aphididae); migratory and trivial flight activity. Journal of Animal Ecology, 38, 585-606.

Dixon, A.F.G. (1976) Factors determining the distribution of sycamore aphids on sycamore leaves during summer. Ecological Entomology, 1, 275-278.

Dixon, A.F.G. (1977) Aphid Ecology: Life cycles, polymorphism, and population regulation. Annual Review of Ecology & Systematics, 8, 329-353.

Harrington, R. (1994) Aphid layer. Antenna, 18, 50-51.

Hunter, M.D. & Price, P.W. (1992) Playing chutes and ladders – heterogeneity and the relative roles of bottom-up and top-down forces in natural communities. Ecology, 73, 724-732.

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

Jarosik, V. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1999) Population dynamics of a tree-dwelling aphid: regulation and density-independent processes. Journal of Animal Ecology, 68, 726-732.

Karley, A.J., Parker, W.E., Pitchford, J.W., & Douglas, A.E. (2004) The mid-season crash in aphid populations: why and how does it occur? Ecological Entomology, 29, 383-388.

Karley, A.J., Pitchford, J.W., Douglas, A.E., Parker, W.E., & Howard, J.J. (2003) The causes and processes of the mid-summer population crash of the potato aphids Macrosiphum euphorbiae and Myzus persicae (Hemiptera: Aphididae). Bulletin of Entomological Research, 93, 425-437.

Kean, J.M. (2002) Population patterns of Paradoxaphis plagianthi, a rare New Zealand aphid. New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 26, 171-176.

Kift, N.B., Dewar, A.M. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1998) Onset of a decline in the quality of sugar beet as a host for the aphid Myzus persicaeEntomologia experimentalis et applicata, 88, 155-161.

Leather, S.R. & Owuor, A. (1996) The influence of natural enemies and migration on spring populations of the green spruce aphid, Elatobium abietinum Walker (Hom., Aphididae). Journal of Applied Entomology, 120, 529-536.

Parry, W.H. (1977) The effects of nutrition and density on the production of alate Elatobium abietinum on Sitka spruce. Oecologia, 30, 637-675.

Southwood, T.R.E. & Comins, H.N. (1976) A synoptic population model.  Journal of Animal Ecology, 45, 949-965.

Watt, A.D. (1979) The effect of cereal growth stages on the reproductive activity of Sitobion avenae and Metopolphium dirhodum. Annals of Applied Biology, 91, 147-157.

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

Wratten, S.D. (1975) The nature of the effects of the aphids Sitobion avenae and Metopolophium dirhodum on the growth of wheat. Annals of Applied Biology, 79, 27-34.


Post script

For those interested this is how Huxley arrived at his number of potential descendants, and here I quote from his paper,  “In his Lectures, Prof. Owen adopts the calculations taken from Morren (as acknowledged by him) from Tougard that a single impregnated ovum  of Aphis may give rise, without fecundation, to a quintillion of Aphides.” I have not, so far, been able to track down Tougard.

Morren, C.F.A. (1836) sur le Puceron du Pecher, Annales des Sciences Naturelle series 2. vi.

You may not know what a grain is, so to help you visualise it, 7000 grains equals a pound so 2 000 000 grains gives you 286 pounds, or 20 stone or approximately 130 Kg depending on where you come from J


*and generated some magnificent paper titles and quite acrimonious responses J Hassell, M.P., Crawley, M.J., Godfray, H.C.J., & Lawton, J.H. (1998) Top-down versus bottom-up and the Ruritanian bean bug. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 95, 10661-10664.

**A true labour of love as I also counted maple aphids, orange ladybirds, winter moth larvae and any of their predators and parasites that I came across J




Filed under Aphidology, Aphids

The Curious Case of the Shark-finned Aphid

The large (giant) willow aphid, Tuberlolachnus salignus, is, in my opinion, one of the world’s greatest unsolved mysteries.  This aphid is sometimes regarded as being the largest aphid in the world.  It can reach a length of 5 mm, can weigh up to 13 mg as an adult and the new-born nymphs weigh about 0.25 mg (Hargreaves & Llewellyn, 1978).  You can get an idea of how big it is from the picture below.

willow aphid on finger


This is pretty big for an aphid, although not quite as big as one of my former PhD students (Tilly Collins) liked to pretend!  The picture below used to appear on her website and was the envy of a number of Texan entomologists.  Tuberolachnus salignus, as you might expect, since it feeds through the bark and not on leaves, has rather a long set of stylets, up to  1.8 mm, more than a third of it’s body length (Mittler, 1957).

tilly on aphid

This picture emphasises the first mystery: what is the function of the dorsal tubercle, which so closely resembles a rose thorn, or to me, a shark’s fin.  Nobody knows.  Is it defensive? Unlikely, since T. salignus being a willow feeder is stuffed full of nasty chemicals and very few predators seem to want, or be able to feed on it.  They feed in large aggregations on the stems of their willow tree hosts and can have serious effects on tree growth (Collins et al., 2001).  As the aphids produce a lot of honeydew, they are often ant-attended  (Collins & Leather, 2002) and these also deter potential predators.  In fact the aphid colonies produce so much honeydew in the summer that they attract huge numbers of vespid wasps that are in search of energy-rich sugar sources at that time of year.  These too are likely to make potential predators and parasitoids think twice about approaching the aphids.


Photograph courtesy Dr Tilly Collins

The wasps also cause a problem for researchers and when Tilly was doing her PhD, she used to have to confine her fieldwork to those times of day when the wasps were not around.   In addition, if you crush one of the aphids you will discover that it stains your fingers bright orange and that this stain will last several days if you don’t try too hard to wash it off.  If you get this aphid ‘blood’ on your clothes they will be permanently marked and Tilly used to say that she ought to be paid an extra clothing allowance.

Tuberolachnus salignus, is as far as we can tell, anholocyclic, no males have been recorded and no matter how hard people have tried to induce the formation of males and sexual females, they have not been successful.  This is however, not the second mystery.  The mystery is that every year, in about February, it does a disappearing act and for about four months its whereabouts remain a mystery (Collins et al., 2001).  So we have an aphid that spends a substantial period of the year feeding on willow trees without leaves and then in the spring when most aphids are hatching from their eggs to take advantage of the spring flush, T. salignus disappears!  Does it go underground?  If so, what plant is it feeding on and why leave the willows when their sap is rising and soluble nitrogen is readily available?

So here is a challenge for all entomological detectives out there.  What is the function of the dorsal tubercle and where does T. salignus go for the spring break?

Truly a remarkable aphid and two mysteries that I would dearly love to know the answers to and yet another reason why I love aphids so much.

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. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1365-2311.2002.00390.x/full

Collins, C. M., Rosado, R. G. & Leather, S. R. (2001). The impact of the aphids Tuberloachnus salignus and Pterocomma salicis on willow trees. Annals of Applied Biology 138, 133-140 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1744-7348.2001.tb00095.x/abstract.

Hargreaves, C. E. M. & Llewellyn, M. (1978). The ecological energetics of the willow aphid, Tuberolachnus salignus:the influence of aphid Journal of Animal Ecology, 47, 605-613. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3804?uid=3738032&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21101920521473

Mittler, T. E. (1957). Studies on the feeding and nutrition of Tuberolachnus salignus (Gmehn) (Homoptera, Aphididae). I. The uptake of phloem sap. Journal of  Experimental Biology, 34, 334-341  http://jeb.biologists.org/content/34/3/334.full.pdf

Other resources




Filed under Aphidology, Aphids, EntoNotes

Silk- not just a spider thing

Mention silk and most people will, I guess, immediately think of spiders and cobwebs.

Pressed a bit further, some may mention silkworms, and some might even know the word sericulture and that the common silkworm feeds on mulberry bushes.   What they may not know, is that the silk worm is the larvae of the moth Bombyx mori and that there are actually four species of lepidopteran larvae commonly used in silk production.  These are pictured below in the lovely illustration from Meyers Konversations-Lexikon; next to the picture are some B. mori larvae.

Silkworm larvae Silkworms

Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, 4th Auflage, Band 14, Seite 826a (4th ed., Vol. 14, p.826a)

Four of the most important domesticated silk moths. Top to bottom: Bombyx mori, Hyalophora cecropia, Antheraea pernyi, Samia cynthia. From Meyers Konversations-Lexikon (1885-1892

Silk production is of course not just a feature of spiders and lepidoptera.  It is a widespread feature of insect life, being used for pupal cases, as a mode of transport (ballooning) as shown by larvae of the gypsy moth and other species of Lepidoptera,

ballooning gypsy moth            ballooning gypsy moth drawing

protective cases as in larval caddis flies or also, by some caddis fly larvae, as fishing equipment.

 caddisfly_larva  Caddis fly net

But in my opinion, the most dramatic use of silk is that seen in a genus of micro-moths, belonging to the Yponomeutidae, the small ermine moths, Yponomeuta.  They and their relatives, are silk-producers extraordinaire.  Collectively, they are known as small ermine moths; so called because of their adult colouration which resembles the ermine worn by nobility and small, because of the existence of several larger moths with ermine in their names.



The larvae are less attractive and are the web/silk producers.



My particular favourite is the bird cherry ermine moth, and not just because the bird cherry is my favourite tree.  (My eldest son’s middle name is bird cherry, albeit in Finnish). The adult moths lay their eggs in August, in clusters of up to 100 or so on young twigs of the bird cherry Prunus padus, cover them with an egg shield and then die (Leather, 1986).  The eggs hatch shortly afterwards and the larvae spend the winter under the egg shield until the following spring.  When the buds begin to burst in spring, the larvae emerge from beneath the shield and begin to feed gregariously on the newly emerging leaves, spinning a web that protects them from natural enemies  and may also help in thermoregulation and as a trail indicator (Kalkowski, 1958)  http://edepot.wur.nl/201846 .  It is possible to have great fun by selecting a lead larvae to act as a trail blazer and watch the rest of the colony follow them to a destination you have chosen.

Every three to four years or so, populations of the moths get so high that they exhaust their food supplies, defoliating entire trees and covering  them with a tough coating of silky white webbing (Leather, 1986; Leather & Mackenzie, 1994).  In fact, in Finland, I once saw three neighbouring trees totally enveloped in a silken tent caused by the bird cherry ermine moth, Yponomeuta evonymellus, that you could enter and shelter inside from the rain.  Once they really get going as spring progresses, the landscape, particularly if in an area where bird cherry is common, begins to take on a somewhat wintry look, which for May is a little odd.  Those of who you, who have travelled north of Perth in Scotland, on the A9, will be familiar with this phenomenon.  It frequently makes the Scottish newspapers and generates headlines such as “winter wonderland” or “ghostly landscape”. As they run out of trees, the larvae begin to migrate in a desperate search for trees with leaves still on them, and by now, have become less fussy about what they eat.  It is at this wandering stage of their life that the true extent

Yponomeuta webbing  bird cherry emrine moth webbing

of their singlemindedness (I have seen a trail of thousands of larvae marching along a railway line; they didn’t survive the passing of the 0850 from Helsinki) and their ability to produce silk becomes startlingly apparent.

Ermine moths on car    Ermine_moth_larva_on_a_Swedish_army_bike


Truly, silk is not just a spider thing.

Kalkowski, W. (1958). Investigations on territorial orientation during ontogenic development in Hyponomeuta. Folia Biol Krakow 6: 79-102.

Leather, S. R. & Mackenzie, G. A. (1994). Factors affecting the population development of the bird cherry ermine moth, Yponomeuta evonymella L. The Entomologist 113: 86-105.

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


Filed under EntoNotes