Why Buying Ladybugs Won’t Control Aphids on Plants

Aphids and squash bugs are banes to my garden. Maybe yours? And dealing with aphids on plants is a sure sign that it’s finally gardening season.

They’re everywhere this year, and they came out fast. It doesn’t help that our winter has been so wet and didn’t get that cold. Aphids spent all season nestled in my cold frame, ready to come out long before nights stopped freezing.

When aphids attack plants, leaves curl inward around injury. That creates more places for aphids to hide and breed. They attack more leaves, the leaves curl…next thing you know, you have an infestation.

20170502_151005
An aphid-infested Brussels sprout plant. Do you see the broad, healthy leaves of the plants behind it?

If you go to Facebook and complain about aphids on plants, somebody is sure to pop up and say, in all-authoritative text, “Ladybugs help with aphids.”

Yeah, no crap, Sherlock. We learned that in second grade.

Coaxing ladybugs to actually help your garden isn’t that simple. Sure, nurseries make it sound like it is. They sell ladybugs by the pint, dormant in their mini-fridges. Just spray sugar water beside the aphids on plants, they say. Release the ladybugs, they say.

First of all, half of those ladybugs are either dead, or will soon be, before they can eat their first aphid. (People who have tried this, back me up here.)

Second, ladybugs don’t just hang out on your property. You can’t fence them in, they won’t sign a contract, and they’re not going to sit on your brassicas by the good graces of their hearts, waiting for an aphid to prance by. They’re going to leave, in search of food! Maybe they’ll eat a few of your aphids on the way, maybe they won’t.

Since ladybugs are such an undeniably effective way of dealing with aphids on plants, the trick isn’t to buy them and sing love songs, telling them how you’ll be devastated if they leave. Cultivate an environment that is friendly to ladybugs.

  1. Avoid pesticides. What kills aphids on plants will also kill ladybugs. It may also kill bees. And if ladybugs sense your garden is unfriendly, they won’t stay. If you don’t freak out and grab the pesticides, you’re already leaving a few aphids to feed the newcomers.
  2. Look for curled leaves that indicate infestation. Treat those areas, since you know that’s where the aphids flock in multitudes. And use organic treatments (see below.)
  3. Injured and diseased plants become safe havens for bugs. A healthy plant resists predators. If a plant is so infested it’s stunted and shriveled, pluck it out to save the others. You might not cure the infestation in time to avoid infecting the healthy ones. What do you do with the plant? Don’t throw it back in the garden. Feed it to your chickens! (Yet another reason to stay organic.)
  4. A good jet of water removes most aphids and drowns them at soil level. Each day when you water, inspect plants and squirt off the little buggers. This is extremely useful for stronger plants like roses and fruit trees.
  5. If you must spray with something more than water, try a mixture of water and biodegradable soap. This suffocates them. Spray directly onto the aphids on plants; coating an uninfected leaf doesn’t do a thing.
  6. Neem oil is also an extremely effective, but much more expensive, option. Spray directly on aphids; as with soapy water, if you spray bare leaves, it won’t do a thing.

And lastly, don’t freak out. A few aphids doesn’t mean an infestation. Often, if you see a few masses, leaving them alone is just what the ladybugs need. Soon they lay eggs, their alligator-like nymphs hatch, and aphids are consumed in high numbers.

So, next time you have aphids on plants, avoid the ladybug industry and cultivate a garden that welcomes them and encourages them to hang out.

20170502_151013
Aphids taking shelter beneath a curled, injured leaf portion. I sprayed these right off with the hose.

 

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