Controlling Aphids in Early Spring
Aphids can get out of control in early spring as they become active before their native predators, such as ladybugs, emerge from hibernation. We have a particular problem in our hoophouse and in our greenhouse on the eggplant, pepper and tomato transplants from mid-April to mid- to late-May depending when we manage to get them under control.We’re planning now, so we can be ready next spring.
There are many kinds of aphids. The lifecycle of aphids starts in spring with eggs hatching into wingless females that give birth via parthenogenesis to more females. Within a week, one female can produce 100 clones, which can repeat the process at the age of one week. This continues until adverse weather or predators trigger production of a generation of winged female aphids that moves to new plants. Later in summer male aphids are born and females lay fertilized eggs that overwinter on host plants, to hatch the following spring.
Climate change is making the problem worse: for every 1degree Celsius rise in average temperature (about 2 F degrees), aphids become active two weeks earlier.
Organic Integrated Pest Management
I have a blog post about our organic integrated pest management, a step-by-step method of pest management which starts with actions least harmful to the ecosystem, only employing biological controls such as botanical sprays and selective pesticides if necessary after all other steps have been insufficient.
I recommend the ATTRA online publication Organic Integrated Pest Management. Each of the 22 pages is a poster, complete with good photos and concise clear info. Extension.org has an article on Organic Integrated Pest Management that explains how to tackle pest problems one step at a time with ecologically-based practices, starting with actions chosen to reduce the chances of the pest ever getting a grip on your crops.
Steps in Organic Integrated Pest Management:
- Prevent infestation: Cultivate a good environment for your crops: healthy soil, sufficient space, nutrients and water, suitable temperature, soil pH. Practice crop rotation to reduce the chances of pests and diseases carrying over from one crop to the next. Clear old crops promptly, so they don’t act as a breeding ground for the pest. Choose suitable varieties that resist the pests you most expect.
- Cover or protect the plants physically from the pests (mulches to stop soil-dwelling pests moving up into your crops, netting, rowcover, planting diverse crops, and even growing trap crops)
- Provide habitat for natural enemies and other beneficial insects
- Monitor crops regularly at least once a week and identify any pests you see.
- Introduce natural enemies of the pest (bacteria, fungi, insect predators or parasites)
- Hand pick and kill the pests if the pest population is above the action threshold. Many fruit and root crop plants can take 30% defoliation before any loss of yield. Where the crop is the foliage, this may be too much!
- Use biological controls (often derived from natural enemies) if the damage is still economically significant after trying the earlier steps in the process.
Applying these principles to dealing with early spring aphids
1. Prevent infestation If you act before the aphids arrive, you can use a fine mesh netting to keep them off your plants, but monitor to make sure no aphids have got inside the net. Control ants (which farm aphids for their sweet excretions). Reputed repellents that I have not tried: dilute garlic, onion or chilies with water; diatomaceous earth (health hazard from inhaling gritty particles); vegetable oils.
2. Cover or protect physically. You could try trap crops of nasturtiums to draw aphids away from your crop, but how much of your space do you want to devote to nasturtiums, and how do you deal with them then? The same choices as on food crops.
3. Provide habitat for natural enemies. Plant for a continuous supply of insect-attracting blooms, that flower early in the year and attract aphid predators such as ladybugs, lacewings, syrphid flies (hoverflies), damsel bugs, big-eyed bugs, and spiders. Grow some early blooming flowers with pollen and nectar they can use as alternative foods. Sow seed in fall for earliest bloom.
Native annuals are some of the earliest bloomers that attract beneficial insects:
Tidy Tips (Layia platyglossa), a spring flowering wild annual in the aster (sunflower) family. The white tipped yellow daisy like flowers are 2” (5 cm) across. A native of California, it grows up to 2ft (60 cm) tall. The seeds attract birds. Flowers have special value to native bees. Tolerates cold to -5°F (-20°C). Likes full sun. Seed is widely available. To start indoors, sow seeds 6 to 8 weeks prior to planting outside. Do not cover; seeds need light to germinate. Seeds germinate in 8-12 days at 65-70° F (18-21°C). Temperatures above 70°F (21°C) inhibit germination.
Information from Laura Blodgett in the Daily Improvisations blog, Southwest Idaho: Starting Tidy Tips from seed in February was too early. The seeds sprouted within a few days. The plants were sturdy from the start. It was too cold to plant them out, but they had so much growth that they were cramped in their small pots. There were enough warm days in March to harden them off, even though temperatures got down in the mid 30’s F (1-3°C) a few nights.
Meadowfoam (Limnanthes douglasii) commonly known as poached egg plant and Douglas’ meadowfoam. The five-petalled 1” (2.5 cm) flowers have yellow centers and white edges. A fast-growing bushy annual, very attractive to hoverflies, butterflies and bees. Requires insect pollination. It grows 6-12” (15-30 cm) tall and wide. Hardy to zone 2. Germinate below 60°F (16°C) (in fall?). May need light for germination. Easy to transplant, but don’t let it dry out! If spring-sown, may not flower until early summer (too late for aphid control). Temperatures below 55°F (13°C) will hinder flower opening as well as honey bee flight.
Baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) is a low spreading, shrub-like plant with succulent stems and flowers with six curved blue petals. It grows 6-12” (15-31 cm.) high and wide. You can expect baby blue eyes flowers in late winter where temperatures are moderate and the plant blooms until late spring to early summer. Wait until soils warm to nearly 60°F (16°C) to sow seeds. Sow shallowly, about 1/16 inch (2 mm) deep. Baby blue eyes flower will germinate in 7-10 days with cool weather and short days. Baby blue eyes self-seeds readily but does not transplant easily. Butterflies, bees, and other helpful insects use the nectar as food. Pinch the tips of the growth to force bushier plant formation. Once the plant has flowered and seed heads formed, cut them off and dry them in a paper bag. Shake the bag after a week and then pick out the larger pieces of chaff. Transplant carefully 6-8 weeks after sowing. Sow in the fall, (but not frost-hardy? winter hardy in zone 7 and warmer?) then blooms from early spring to mid-summer. Baby blue eyes will die out if too hot in summer. Water frequently, provide shade (without hindering insects!)
Borage is a warm-season annual, fast at producing nectar, taking about 8 weeks to flower from sowing. Borage grows 1-3 feet (30-90 cm) tall and wide; it blooms from early summer until the first frost in fall. Borage can be started indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost. Seeds germinate in 7-10 days. Transplant borage seedlings outdoors after the last spring frost. Be careful when transplanting not to damage the taproot. Seeds can also be sown in the fall and will germinate the following spring.
Alyssum is a small plant we have used in broccoli and cabbage beds to attract beneficial insects. Sweet alyssum attracts three main groups of predatory beneficial insects a) Minute pirate bugs (they eat aphids, thrips, mites, psyllids, and insect eggs), b) Parasitic wasps (they lay eggs in aphids, beetles, flies, moths, sawflies, mealy bugs, and scales. The larvae hatch and eat their way out, killing the host. c) Hover flies, aka syrphid flies (the larvae feed on aphids). Alyssum flowers also attract butterflies and bees. Buy Sweet Alyssum, not the ornamental cultivars.
Shungiku, Chrysanthemum Greens, Chopsuey Greens, Glebionis Coronaria, is in the aster family, Asteraceae. It is native to the Mediterranean and East Asia. The plant’s greens are used in many Asian cuisines. Shungiku is easy to grow and the leaves, young shoots and stems can be eaten. Leaves are aromatic, with a strong flavor. Some describe the taste as between celery and carrots. Even the petals and seeds can be eaten. Small House Farm grows this (and sells seed). Bevin says it does attract bees, butterflies and predatory insects. It would probably do well in the winter hoophouse, and could be provoked into bolting early in the spring.
Dill is a biennial umbellifera, often grown as an annual. It is easy to grow, germinating in 10-14 days. It doesn’t transplant easily (although we do it every year without a problem). It does self-seed readily, so to prevent this, cut the seed heads before the seeds turn tan. The leggy plant grows 2-4 ft tall (60-120 cm) and half as wide. Each plant grows only one hollow stem with an umbrella-shaped flower head from mid-summer to fall (too late for spring aphid predators). Dill tolerates cold and heat, but will likely die back to the ground after the first hard freeze. It might not be the easiest to include in a hoophouse.
Angelica is a biennial that can flower in the spring of its second year.
Phacelia is a particularly useful perennial plant in early spring if it has overwintered as it is an early pollen source for bees coming out of hibernation. Sow in the fall for early spring blooms – Phacelia will survive mild frosts to bloom in spring. It winter-kills at approximately 18˚F (-8˚C). The seeds need darkness to germinate, and then the plants like to grow in full sun. Phacelia flowers from 6-8 weeks from spring sowing for a period of 6-8 weeks with lavender blooms that attract syrphid flies, bumblebees, honeybees and native bees, and also aphid predators like hoverflies and parasitic wasps. It can grow 6-40” (8-100 cm) tall, given the chance.
Yarrow is a perennial, hardy to zone 5. Common Yarrow (with flowers that range from white to red) is hardy down to zone 3. It attracts an array of beneficial insects. In addition, the scent of yarrow repels deer and mosquitoes.
Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare (common fennel), is an herbaceous perennial commonly grown as a summer annual. 5-7 ft (1.5-2 m) tall; each stem branches near the top and each branch ends with a flat-topped cluster of small yellow flowers; fennel looks very much like dill but is taller and coarser. Fennel blooms from mid-summer to frost. Too late and too tall for our goal of attracting spring aphid predators in the hoophouse.
Coyote bush, (Baccharis pilularis), also called chaparral broom, is a native shrub related to sunflowers. It may be a low-growing shrub or an erect tall bush, depending upon its growing conditions, and so may not be a good candidate for a potted plant in the hoophouse! It attracts syrphid flies, as well as bees and butterflies, with its abundant winter bloom.
Dandelions. If you decide to trust to weeds to feed your beneficial insects, take care about how much seed they sow!
4. Monitor crops at least once a week
5. Introduce natural enemies: We do have an aphid parasite in the hoophouse as we do find mummies, but not enough to control an aphid outbreak in spring. Parasitic wasps for aphids include
Aphidus colemani eggs hatch into larvae which feed on the nymphs from the inside, the nymph swells and hardens into a leathery, grey or brown colored mummy similarly to effects of Aphelinus abdominalis. Once larvae mature, adult A. colemani wasps chew their way out of the aphid mummy and emerge to seek out aphids. These parasites are a good choice for year-round use (in greenhouses and outdoors) as the short days of winter do not affect them. Optimum Conditions: 70-77°F (21-25°C), 80% relative humidity. Release rates: 500-3,000 per acre, 2-3 times at one week intervals, depending on the extent of infestation. This product controls aphids, especially melon and cotton aphids Aphis gossypii, but also attack green peach aphid Myzus persicae, tobacco aphid Myzus nicotianae and bird cherry-oat aphids Rhopalosiphum padi. Price $243 for three batches of 500, including overnight shipping, from Arbico Organics.
Aphidus ervi will consume all types of larger aphids, especially the potato aphid, Macrosiphum euphorbiae, and the glasshouse potato aphid, Aulacorthum solani. It also parasitizes Myzus persicae var. nicotianae, as well as aphids such as Sitobion sp., Schizaphis sp., Rhodobium sp., Acyrthosiphon pisum and others. Use Aphidius ervi especially when aphid infestations are just beginning, as control will be easier to achieve before the aphid population’s explosion. Aphidius ervi are shipped in a 125 ml bottle that contains at least 250 mummies and adult aphid parasites. The bottle has a ventilated cap for optimum humidity. A sugar-water feeder ring ensures adult survival. Release the emerged adults within 18 hours of receipt. The parasitized aphid swells and hardens into a leathery, grey or brown colored mummy. The first mummies can be seen in the crop approximately 2 weeks after the first introduction. Use at the rate of 1 adult per 20-100 sq ft (1 per 2-9 m2) for preventative use. 250 mummies is sufficient for 5000-25,000 sq ft (460-2300 m2). Dose rate may be increased 5-fold for hot spots. Introduce A. ervi weekly for at least 3 weeks. Cost from Arbico is $101 including shipping each time, $303 likely. Monitor weekly and make further introductions as required. When pruning leaves, check for parasitized aphids (brown mummies) and if present, keep these leaves in the greenhouse until new parasites emerge. Because they fly as soon as they emerge, you need to cover doors and windows with mesh screens.
Another option is a predatory gall-midge, Aphidoletes aphidomyza, the larvae of which hunt and kill aphids. Kills over 60 species of aphids, especially those in greenhouses and hoophouses, including green peach aphid Myzus persicae; and the hemlock woolly adelgid Adelges tsuga. Optimum conditions: 64-77°F (17-25°C) with RH of 70%. Shipped as pupae. The adults hatch within 1-12 days. After hatching, females lay eggs among aphid colonies. The eggs develop into larvae, and seek out adult aphids, injecting a toxin in their legs to paralyze them. Then they bite a hole in their thorax and suck out the body contents. Use 1 predator per 10 sq ft (1 m2), 2-3 predators per 10 sq ft (1 m2) for heavier infestations or 4,500 per acre (0.4 hectare) weekly until infestation subsides. 1000 for a 96x30ft (29×9 m) hoophouse, cost $125 including shipping per week, perhaps $375 total.
Green Lacewing adults feed on nectar, pollen, and aphid honeydew, and the larvae are active predators of soft-bodied insect pests: aphids, thrips, whitefly, leafhoppers, spider mites (especially red mites) and mealybugs. After hatching, green lacewing larvae seek out prey – pest eggs, nymphs or adults. They feed for 2-3 weeks, spin a cocoon, and emerge as adults 10-14 days later. Lacewings have the ability to tolerate wide temperature ranges and work well with most other beneficial insects. Green Lacewing Eggs: Best low-cost biological control for common garden pests. If you want to establish Green Lacewings at the beginning of the season or have a limited infestation, choose the appropriate numbers of eggs for your garden or greenhouse. It takes 3-10 days for larvae to emerge depending on the temperature and other environmental conditions. Repeat applications every 1-2 weeks. Green lacewing eggs are available in loose media or on hanging cards for easy release. Green Lacewing Larvae: Best for immediate treatment of a pest problem. If you have a more severe infestation, buy the larval frames or bottles, which provide the quickest means to control unwanted pests – the larvae arrive ready to feed. Adult Green Lacewings: Best for establishing a population. If you are treating a large area and want to create a stable population, buy adult lacewings. The adults come ready to lay eggs throughout the release area. They do not actively control pests themselves. Cost 1000 eggs on cards $30 each time; 1000 larvae $61 each time; 100 adults $85. All prices include shipping.
Ladybugs. live ladybugs are best used when pest numbers are low, but can be used to fight existing infestations. Ladybugs primarily feed on aphids, but will prey on a variety of other pests including mealybugs, thrips, soft scale, whiteflies and spider mites. Each adult can consume up to 5,000 aphids in a lifetime. The larvae eat 50-60 aphids per day. Optimum Temperatures: 62-88°F (15-31°C). Ladybugs are prone to flying away. Help keep them around and attract native species by planting perennial and annual flowering plants and by avoiding chemical sprays. Create shaded areas or plants with dense canopies to provide alternative habitat when conditions are not ideal. While these methods may not keep all the ladybugs on site, they should help. If you have had issues with ladybug flight, consider using Assassin Bugs or Green Lacewing instead. 4,500 for up to 2,500 sq ft (232 m2). Cost $20/1500 plus Overnight or 2nd Day Air shipping.
6. Hand pick and kill the pests if the pest population is above the action threshold. Handpicking aphids is likely impossible, so blast them off the plants with a water jet from a hose. This may decrease the population enough for natural predators to begin control.
7. Use biological controls. Failing success with the methods above, a soap spray can be effective, although aphid predators will also be harmed. We use 3 Tablespoons (15 ml) per gallon (3.8 l) of biodegradable Murphy’s Oil Soap, in a sequence of 3 sprayings 5 days apart. The soap needs to hit the aphids to kill them. Soak both sides of the leaves and directly spray any visible pests. Murphy’s Oil Soap is made from lye (potassium hydroxide) or sodium hydroxide, and vegetable oils with 2% of synthetic ingredients including trisodium MGDA, Lauramidopropyl dimethylamine oxide (a non-toxic purifying agent), sodium tallate. Official insecticidal soaps are made from potassium salts of fatty acids (potassium laurate).
Insecticidal soap works in several ways. The soap penetrates insects’ cuticles, which causes their cells to collapse and dry out. Soaps suffocate insects such as scale insects. Soap sprays are also somewhat effective against chiggers, earwigs, fleas, mites, scales, and thrips. They are not effective on chewing insects such as caterpillars and beetles.
You can make your own soap spray if you have some fragrance-free liquid soap. You do not need to include oil. Note that “dish soap” is actually detergent, not a soap at all, so don’t use that. Test your homemade spray on a small part of a plant first and wait 24 hours to see if there is any damage. Look for spotting, wrinkling, or browning of leaves. If you see any trouble, don’t use the spray.
Soap sprays can be potentially damaging to some plants. Crops that are susceptible to damage from soap sprays include cucumbers, squash, melons, beans, and peas.
Neem is a botanical insecticide effective against aphids.
Best Options for our Hoophouse in April and May
Looking at the options for dealing with aphids and choosing those most compatible with pot-grown plants to flower in spring in our greenhouse and hoophouse, these seem our best chances:
- · Cultivate a good environment for our crops.
- · Monitor crops regularly once a week.
- · Grow Meadowfoam from seed in the hoophouse in late October. Hardy to zone 2. Try February too.
- · Grow Tidy Tips from seed in the greenhouse in February, pot up and move into the hoophouse just before flowering. Try starting some in late October too. Tolerates cold to -5°F
- Grow Sweet Alyssum from seed started in February.
- Grow borage form seed started in February. Move pots to hoophouse after April 1.
- Grow perennial phacelia started in October and February for future years. Phacelia will survive mild frosts to bloom in spring. Protect from worse than “mild frosts”.
- Grow yarrow from seed started in October and February. It is hardy down to zone 3.
- Grow Shungiku from seed sown in late September, and provoked into bolting early in spring.
- If we want to spend $100+ to deal with a bad infestation, buy 3 units of ladybugs.