Aphids and Ants on Apple Trees!
For Organic Aphid Control, Look Toward Controlling Ants As Well.
By Paul Wheaton & Suzy Bean
If you have infestations of ants on apple trees, you could also have an aphid problem.
I got home from a long trip for work and hear that one of the new apple trees isn’t doing so well. “It’s covered in ants!” I know right away what’s going on. The ants are herding aphids.
Yeah, yeah, you think I’m a few fries short of a happy meal and this just seals the deal. But I tell ya it’s true. I’ll confess that they don’t ride little miniature horses, but they will pick up an aphid and move it to where they think they will get the best sugar. Then, when the aphid is nice and plump, they suck the sugar out of the aphid’s butt. Mmm, sugary aphid butt.
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Want proof? See the movie ANTZ. Take a look at the bar scene where Weaver says to Zee “Don’t you want your aphid beer?” and Zee says “I can’t help it. I have a thing about drinking from the anus of another creature. Call me crazy.”
Okay, so a cartoon movie without any double blind studies isn’t the most persuasive thing. Well, how about this!
Reader “Aase in Norway” connected me with Charles Chien, who actually did take a picture. Real proof!
(Thanks Charles for giving me permission to use your excellent picture here.)
For those of you that don’t know what aphids are, they are small, soft-bodied insects with a needle-like mouth, kind of like a mosquito. But instead of sucking the blood from animals, they suck the “blood” from plants. As I’m sure you know, plants convert sunlight into sugar. They then pump the sugar throughout the plant, including down to the roots. Aphids stick their “needle” in and extract the sugar as it is on its way down to the root.
Aphids control is easy. For best results, I order up some “aphid lion” (lacewing larvae) eggs. I used to get ladybugs, but they tend to fly away before the job is done. Aphid lions don’t have their wings yet. And they’re just starving for aphids.
Since the ants will attack anything that comes near the aphids, I knew I had to get rid of the ants first.
Controlling Ants on Apple Trees Organically, Plan A:
Diatomaceous earth (DE) is an off-white talc-like powder that is the fossilized remains of marine phytoplankton. When sprinkled on a bug that has an exoskeleton (such as an ant) it gets caught between their little exoskeleton joints. As they move, the DE acts like razor blades and cuts them up. DE only works when it is dry. DE does not harm other animals; in fact, some folks feed it to their animals thinking that it will wipe out some parasites. DE can irritate lung tissue (just as any talc-like dust would), so try not to breathe in any dust.
Since DE works only when it is dry, use it only on a dry day with little or no wind. Put it on around 9 or 10 in the morning so that morning dew won’t wet it.
A few times in the past I have sprinkled a little DE on problem ant spots and the ants would then be gone. So naturally, this is what I did here. The one thing to remember about DE, in this case, is that when the ants are all gone, make sure to rinse away the DE so that the beneficial insects that will be eating the aphids won’t be hurt by the DE.
While I was there, I smashed scads of aphids. They smash super easy. Just touch them and they pop. I just gently ran my fingers over the leaves. Most of the aphids are on the bottom of the leaves, but a few were on the top. I probably smashed about a third of all the aphids on this little tree. For those of you that don’t have a natural green thumb, by the time you’ve smashed a few aphids this way, your thumb is mighty green. You can now feign horticultural superiority until you wash your hands.
I also smashed all the ants that dared to walk on my hands and arms. I probably smashed about 40 ants this way—maybe 5% of their population.
I came back the next day to view the results of my handiwork. It was as if I was never there. Scads of aphids and ants on apple trees. I said to them, “You may have won the battle, but the war ain’t over yet!” So I shook a bunch of ants off the tree, smashed a bunch of aphids and ants and stormed off to formulate my new scheme.
Controlling Ants on Apple Trees Organically, Plan B:
Chickens eat bugs. I have lots of chickens. The tree is already in a cage to protect it from the deer. As luck should have it, the wires on the cage would contain a chicken. This evil plot could work….
“Bio-Remote Dane! Fetch me a chicken!” (Being the master of 80 acres means that there could be some hiking involved between two points. Therefore it behooves the lazy to have henchmen.)
A great deal of squawking from the hen house and Bio-Remote Dane returns with a lovely Buff Orpington hen. Dane puts her in the cage along with some food and water.
We explained to the hen what we want her to do. I think she wasn’t paying attention. Later she escaped and returned to the hen house. Coward.
The ants and aphids are probably throwing an underground party. So I smash a bunch of them by hand.
Controlling Ants on Apple Trees Organically, Plan C:
It’s possible that our first chicken agent didn’t have the right stuff. I know I’ve seen plenty of chickens eating plenty of grasshoppers. And I’ve seen chickens eating big, carpenter ants. There were heaps of ants in the cage, but I never saw that chicken even look at them. Maybe the ants were small enough that the chicken couldn’t see something that small.
A chick would be 20 times smaller. Does an ant appear 20 times larger to a chick than a full-grown chicken? While one of these ants appears ant-sized to me, it might appear dog-sized to a cricket.
A chick could get through the wires of the fence. So we needed a chicken that was small, but not so small that it could get out of the fence.
This time, Bio-Remote Dane provided an adolescent Red Star chicken. We put her in the cage, and before we could explain her mission to her, she started gobbling up all the ants.
Now, this chicken is a real team player! By “team player” I mean that she reads my mind and does all of my work for me.
Bio-Remote Dane checks the feed and water every couple of hours. After eight hours we return the chicken to the coop. I’m not sure if there’s much difference. We try this for two more days and there are still plenty of ants and plenty of aphids. Maybe a little less, but that could also be because I like to smash them. One thing is for sure: The effort to results ratio is lousy. We need a new plan!
Controlling Ants on Apple Trees Organically, Plan D:
I got distracted for a week or so. Yeah, that’s it. I wasn’t just avoiding the problem. Nor was I whining about losing to a bunch of ants. I wasn’t sulking about how my army of chickens, trained in insect warfare had failed to conquer a few hundred tiny ants. Nope. Not me. I just had other things to do. Got a little busy, that’s all. It could happen to anybody. Really.
So I wander out to the old battleground. It’s worse than ever. After a few minutes, my thumb is really green. But somehow, it seems like an empty green. Why did the DE not work? It worked before. What was different? Did I use the wrong magic words? Have the ants developed some sort of DE resistance technology? Maybe they heard me talking about it before and were prepared….
I snuck back to the garage and got a big scoop of DE. I tiptoe up to the cage and find DE on the leaves! DE on the ground! DE everywhere! Too much DE!
With Plan A I used about a third of a cup of DE and put it only on the leaves. This time I used about a cup and a half and put about half of it on the ground.
The next day I found some ants near the base of the tree still alive. The tree had been watered a few days before and the DE wicked some moisture out of the ground. I added some fresh DE. The day after that I could find only three ants alive and I found only three aphids. I smashed them. Personally.
Our side suffered no losses. And as they say, history is written by the Victor. Victor is a rooster that doesn’t know how to write, so I wrote this.
Viva La Farm!
I fought this battle before learning the word “permaculture,” and my opinion on solutions has, I think, evolved since then. In this case, the real problem is a lack of polyculture. There should be dozens of plants that repel bugs naturally under the apple tree that would make the tree healthier and stronger (like catnip). The apple tree should be near lots of trees (non-apple), shrubs and undergrowth. I’ve also learned a great deal more about how to care for apple trees, growing from seeds, or from their own rootstock, and about pruning techniques (non-pruning techniques would be more accurate). To get a lot more details about this sort of thing, feel free to follow the forum thread at www.permies.com, which includes some excellent info about what to plant that drives ants and aphids away.
To learn more about diatomaceous earth and where to get it, you can read my full article on it at www.richsoil.com.
How have you dealt with aphids and ants on apple trees? Let us know!
Originally published in the July/August 2011 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.