Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Ahhh! Aphids!

I went out the other morning to water my garden. I was noticing that my rose bushes had some funny black spots on their leaves, so I looked closer. What did I find? About a million aphids, feasting on the leaves! Okay. Maybe not a million. But really close.

Trying to be chemical free, I resisted the urge to spray them with my bug killer I had left from last year. I vaguely recalled someone once telling me to spray aphids with soapy water to kill them, so I did a quick google search. Sure enough, there were various websites and forums discussing the effectiveness of soapy water to kill aphids. I browsed through the posts in this forum and found all the information I needed. Basically, you put a few drops of Dawn dishwashing soap (other brands probably work just fine) into a spray bottle and fill with water. It's important not to put more than 2 Tbsp per gallon of water so that you don't damage the plant itself.

I quickly whipped up a batch and ran outside to try it out.

I spritzed and spritzed, searching each new bud and under each leaf.

It was amazing.

They stopped moving instantly. Dead.

After I got them all (or at least all the ones I could see), I sprayed the whole plant down with my hose. The dead aphids just washed right off. I knew that the water would damage the existing flowers, but I was willing to sacrifice those to save the hundreds of little buds that were under attack. And now I have beautiful, (almost) aphid free roses. (As a sidenote, I'm not worried about the few that are left. After all, the ladybugs need something to eat! And to learn more about ladybugs, check out my post here!)

I'm sold. No need for chemicals (well, other than soap).

However, I went out the following day to check on things and found more aphids on the plant! Was the soap a failure? Did I do something wrong? Were those aphids not really dead?

No. No. And No.

Here's what I think is happening. The aphid lays eggs at an EXTREMELY rapid pace. Seriously. You can sit and watch them actually laying eggs on the leaves. Within minutes, one aphid can easily cover a leaf or two. And they mature into adults so fast that some species can produce 40 generations in one season (see here for more facts)! So on one plant, you have aphids in varying stages of life: adults, youth, and eggs. The adults and youth are easily killed, but the eggs seem to be protected from the soap. (The soap kills the aphids by coating their "skin" and preventing them from breathing. Aphids in the egg aren't "breathing" so the soap does nothing). Therefore, you might have gotten all of the adults, but the eggs will soon hatch and mature and start laying more eggs. Continually treating the plant ensures that "new" aphids are killed before having the chance to produce more generations.

The other thing that affects the success of the soapy water is that aphids are REALLY good at hiding. Especially in a plant with many branches, it is hard to find them all the first time. Or the second time.

But each day that I went out, I found fewer and fewer aphids. I was able to really inspect each branch because I wasn't overwhelmed with the thousands of bugs that were there in the beginning. After 4 days, there are so few adult/youth aphids that I could probably count them. And I am able to see where the remaining eggs are.

I don't worry about using the soap everyday because after I kill the bugs, I rinse them off with clean water. The water on the leaves and flowers will do a little damage, but NOTHING compared to what the aphids were doing. And after a little while I'll be able to stop spraying them altogether. Even after only 4 days, I can see a HUGE difference in the health of my roses. And I see flowers blooming that, 4 days ago, didn't have a chance.

Knowing that I'm not spraying lots of crazy chemicals all over my yard makes me feel good. Plus, I can let my kids help me without worrying that they're inhaling a bunch of insecticides. And BOY to kids like to hunt and kill those bugs! I have to admit, it is oddly satisfying to spray those buggers. ***Make sure that you don't spray the ladybugs and other helpful bugs that are likely on the plant as well. They are really good at eating aphids, so you don't want to kill them!*** 

Yay for dishsoap!

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