Aphids and Ants and Ladybugs, Oh My!

My sunflowers are under attack. My okra is too. In fact, much of my garden is in full defense mode against one enemy.

The aphid. That tiny green monster on the left side of the beautiful sunflower.

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It’s disgusting really…when I shake the flower slightly, millions (not an exaggeration) fly in an arc and zoom right back to continue their feeding.

I combed the internet, using all of my usual organic gardening sources and they all suggested spraying them with a solution that always contained Dawn dish soap and water. Some recommended adding mouthwash to the mix, others ground red pepper and still others garlic oil.

Many sites also recommended loading the garden with beneficial insects such as ladybugs by companion planting with sunflowers (that’s what they are attacking!), clover, spearmint and Queen Anne’s lace. It’s late in the season to try that now, but I will definitely be trying it next year.

So, to get rid of these icky insects I have been spraying with the dish soap/water/listerine mix. They are slowly dispersing, off to pester another gardener I’m sure.

An interesting observance.

I first noticed the aphids on my okra. They were squirming in a gross, black, tar like substance. After researching and finding out that they were aphids, I went back out to attack them with my spray bottle. Before I could pull the trigger, I noticed ants crawling over the gross black stuff. The ants appeared to be cleaning the okra leaves, and I only saw one or two aphids. Could the ants be a beneficial insect? Deciding to do some more research, I nearly sprinted back inside to check it out.

I was appalled at what I found. The ants were not in fact eating the aphids as I’d hoped. They were simply eating the nasty black tar, which is actually sweet aphid milk. And the ants are the aphid farmers. Yes that’s right. The ants are milking the aphids for this sugary, black substance…also known as honeydew. But it doesn’t stop there. The ants actually protect the aphids from predators. The search and rescue mission involves the ants carrying the aphids on their legs to safer locations, aka other garden plants, roses and the like.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the ants, who spend the whole spring and summer hauling food back to their homes for the winter, also haul the aphid eggs back to incubate so they can bring them back out to the garden in the spring to eat the aphid milk again. Truly disgusting behavior.

Now. I’m a big fan of the ant. I love their can-do spirit and preparedness attitude, but not at the expense of my garden. I have to find a way to deter them from the garden, but how? Their purpose in life is to prepare for winter. Destroy their home and they begin rebuilding immediately. Kill one of their brethren and they move him to the side to continue on without a second glance. So what can I possibly do?

Ladybugs. They deter the ants by munching on the aphids. Cannibalistic? Maybe, they are both from the insect family, but that really doesn’t concern me. What is concerning is that I have only seen two ladybugs this summer. TWO! I hope they aren’t becoming extinct. I may have to buy a small army of ladybugs to send in as little aphid assassins.

I’ll do what I have to do to dominate the aphids. My mission is to protect my produce and, like the ant, I will not be detracted.

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