Feb
25
2009

What Would Aphids Do?

Hey Buzzketeers, brace yourself for some natural beauty.

Hey! Hey! I know what you’re thinking!

Y’all are thinking, “Hey, JGordon, everything in nature is just doing its best, the best way it knows how. Nature is beautiful, smartypants!”

Smartypants yourselves—I wasn’t being sarcastic. I’m just trying to help you experience natural beauty in the safest way possible. So brace yourselves. Buckle up. Stand over a tarp.

Because Mother Nature is about to hurl all over you. In a beautiful way.

So… you know aphids? Little, plant-eating bugs? We don’t often like them in our gardens because they can be pretty destructive to the plants, but, as you pointed out, they’re just little animals, doing their beautiful best. (Your words.)

It turns out that some aphids are able to interact with plant tissue, forcing it to form a gall, or an area of swollen tissue. Aphids can then live inside the gall. Kind of neat, huh?

But what if the gall is damaged? If a hole is punched in the gall, what happens then? Something beautiful.

Some gall-forming aphids species have “soldiers,” individuals that crowd around the rupture in the gall and—get this—puke out sticky goo to cover the hole. As much as two thirds of a soldier’s bodyweight can be comprised of the goo. The soldiers mix the goo with their legs, until it hardens into a crusty little “scab.” The goo is so sticky and quick-drying, in fact, that soldiers often become trapped in it, their own bodies building the gall scab.

Although… now that I think of it, I’m not sure if the soldiers puke the goo, or if they squeeze it out of some other orifice. Take a look for yourself: Puking or squeezing?

Scientists only discovered this awesome puking/repairing technique in the last few years. Even more recently, however, it has been observed that the galls will fully heal only with the aphids’ help. Once the hole is sealed, soldier aphids (the ones that aren’t stuck in the goo forever) tend the healing plant, manipulating its re-growth until the breach is fully healed. Pretty cool.

This is why I like to think of aphids as “Nature’s doctors.” Because, just like “peoples’ doctors,” they puke on wounds, and sometimes get stuck in the puke as it dries.

To make sure that I’m conveying this concept clearly, I have prepared a series of diagrams demonstrating how aphids repair their homes. Instead of aphids, however, I have drawn multiple JGordons. And I have substituted my own home for a plant gall. But the principle is the same.
Aphids consider their damaged home: Their sweater vests clearly mark them as soldiers.
Aphids consider their damaged home: Their sweater vests clearly mark them as soldiers.Courtesy JGordon

The aphids react on instinct: This is the beautiful part.
The aphids react on instinct: This is the beautiful part.Courtesy JGordon

The job done, nature's doctors admire their work
The job done, nature's doctors admire their workCourtesy JGordon

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Liza's picture
Liza says:

The video is totally great.

At the end, you see the repair as viewed from the inside, with several aphids trapped in the goo. But there are lots of untrapped aphids walking around, passing the stuck ones. And I wonder, do the free aphids ignore the stuck ones? Or do they provide a sort of aphid hospice care ("Um, can I get you a glass of water? Want the remote control or anything?")? Are the stuck aphids continually struggling to escape until they finally die from the effort or from starvation/dehydration?

posted on Thu, 02/26/2009 - 3:48pm

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