Aphids and lacewings and ants, oh my!

So, because I promised to tell the good and the bad of my gardening exploits on this blog, I have to tell you that all is not well in our backyard of late. I am trying to rectify the situation, but there are still some key issues which are making me sad 😦

Aphids have long been a problem that reduce my ability to grow anything from the brassica family (cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts). Part of the problem has been my inability to identify aphids at an early enough time to actually resolve the issue. Here are some photos of my poor doomed brussel sprout plants from late 2012, where I recognised there was a problem, but clearly didn’t act early enough!!

Aphid covered brussel sprouts

My poor brussel sprouts plants, covered in aphids!

So, what are aphids, you say? They are these annoying little bugs that like to live on the types of veggies and plants that I like to grow!! A couple of them won’t really cause a problem, and if you act early to manage them (squish them, spray them or various other attempts), then you can probably slow down their assault. However, if like me, you don’t seem to notice them til they’re all over the plant, they come in hundreds and thousands, they suck the life and the sap out of the plants and destroy its ability to grow fruit and veggies! They come in a few different colours – the ones on my brassicas have always tended to be gray or light blue in colour, and I think that is where I came unstuck – I rather naively assumed it was part of the plant, as they blended in so well, and only once they had really taken hold did I realise it was a problem!! The solution for aphids is to remove them (by hand, with water, with soapy water so they fall off and can’t come back on, with other bugs) before they damage the plant too much, and then be ever vigilant for their return.

My brassicas did not survive, as although I performed some radical surgery to remove the aphid-affected leaves and stems, the damage was clearly too deep to the plant, alas! You’d think I’d learn, right? Wrong!! In my defence, however, the aphids are now different colours and attacking different plants …

Ants – a late warning sign
Earlier in the year, after having gloated about my lovely cucumber plant and the ease at which it gave us abundant cucumbers, I noticed that there were quite a few ants on the cucumber plants, both on the leaves and the stems. I didn’t really think too much about it, I was busy with other things, and the plants seemed otherwise ok. However, fast forward a week or two, and the leaves were yellowing, the mini-cucumbers were shrivelling, and there was definitely an ant invasion. When I looked more closely at the leaves, I discovered little yellow bugs (they look like little bumps, they don’t move) all over the bottom of all the leaves. These were aphids – they are sneaky in that they hide on the bottom of leaves so they’re harder to see!! And yellow, blending in quite well with their surroundings!

By the time the ants are there, this means that the aphids have moved in, sucked out sap, and started creating their own honey sap which they put on the leaves, attracting the ants. Internet research told me that the ants, who love the sweetness, will then protect these aphids against other predators who might otherwise wipe them out! Gah!! So, I dutifully sprayed all the leaves with a water sprayer, removing all aphids that I could see, cutting off the worst affected leaves and hoping for the best. However, I had clearly left it too late (and also should have put some detergent in the water to stop them jumping back on), as they returned, as did the ants, and over the next few weeks, despite my almost daily efforts to remove them, my poor cucumber plants succumbed to a sad aphidy death – I won’t depress you with a photo, but suffice to say, even though I tried radical surgery by removing the affected leaves, the plants were too badly affected, and are now no more.

Now I am learning my lesson about aphids and the need for swift action, and am trying various other methods, as the capsicum, beans and zucchini that I planted in early January and are now good -sized plants are trying to succumb!!

Aphids on capsicum plants

Capsicum plants with aphids – not too many at this stage.

Aphids on zucchini plants

My zucchini plants with aphids

I have been spraying with water to remove them, which has largely worked for the capsicum and beans, but the zucchini plants were in a large box with lots of drainage, and clearly lots of access for ants, as the little suckers are all over it!
Original zucchini home - plenty of space for them, but alas, plenty of access for underground ants!

Original zucchini home – plenty of space for them, but alas, plenty of access for underground ants!

Bugs for bugs
As you know, I’m all about the organic methods, so I thought I might try some ecosystem creation, with some good bugs – there are a number of good bugs that will eat aphids, like ladybirds – I ordered some lacewings from a place in Queensland, Bugs for Bugs – it’s hilarious, you order bugs, they get sent to you in an express post box labelled ‘live bugs’ – I love this country!! They come as larvae in little plastic containers, you let them grow a little for a couple of days in a darkened room (they’re sent with some form of food, I didn’t want to examine it too closely!), then you take them out of the plastic container and put them near and on your plants in little boxes and wait for the magic, as lacewing larvae can allegedly eat up to 60 aphids an hour! I was super keen to get the aphids gone, so released the lacewings as instructed.

Zucchini plant with little bug container for release - you hang it on the plant so hopefully the little lacewings will march straight onto it and start doing their work!

Zucchini plant with little bug container for release – you hang it on the plant so hopefully the little lacewings will march straight onto it and start doing their work!

Bean plant with bugs being released

Bean plant with bugs being released

However, a fair bit of rain, and the fact that ants will eat lacewing larvae to protect their honey-providing aphids means that the zucchini in particular is still covered with ants, as well as now being covered in lacewings and less aphids. The lacewings do seem to be eating the aphids slowly but surely, but I’m increasingly concerned that the ants will prevent them doing their duty!!

Aphids and lacewings

Zucchini plant, now with aphids and lacewings – I think lacewings are the darker-looking bugs (hopefully not a new form of aphid!), as they appear to be on the aphids and move around a little.

So, on the weekend we moved the zucchini into different pots, in an attempt to thwart the ants by having a less porous environment for them to enter. I’ve also put baking soda and garlic cloves around the pots, hoping to detract them (thanks internet and gardening books for these home remedies), and am also doing some hand management, ie flicking the ants off as often as possible! The results are not yet in – the zucchini plant has taken a bit of a beating, and it also helpfully seems to have a powdery mildew problem (damn random tropical weather), which I am treating by removing affected leaves, rather than spraying with a milk solution, as I’m worried that might hurt the lacewings and waste the whole experiment!! Whoever said zucchini plants were easy to grow clearly hasn’t spent time in my random biodome – they do grow quickly into big plants, but actually creating edible zucchini without all these issues, that seems to be another story …

Bottom line – it’s a little frustrating out there at the moment, especially as these are new plants that I am trying to get to actually produce veggies, and there appear to be multiple forces conspiring against me!! But, I am learning every day what to do and what not to do, so if these plants don’t work out, I will be armed with greater knowledge for next time!! And on the upside, the beans seem to have recovered – look at these cute little baby beans!!

Baby beans

Baby beans!

It’s not all bad news out there – the tomato plants are still producing yummy yellow heirlooms, the corn is producing the most hilariously small cobs ever (I’ll feature them in a future post), the herbs are happy, and the lettuce is so cheery it’s bolting everywhere, so there are still good things going on, it’s just annoying to have pests attack plants that seemed to be going so well!! But, I will prevail!!


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