Awhile back, I had been struggling with a crazy aphid infestation on my milkweed plants that I had potted up with intentions of luring the Monarchs to my patio. In all honesty, I’d seen a few of the pests hanging around and knew I should jump on them before it got out of hand. But instead, I walked by it each day telling myself I would take care of them the following day. The days turned to weeks and you would have thought I never knew about those first few aphids by the way I stared incredulously at my plant that now looked like a congested highway, covered with miniscule taxi cabs, during rush hour. Something had to be done NOW!
(Tiny, yellow, taxi cabs. Hmmm, so maybe I shouldn’t have procrastinated so long?)
I knew I didn’t want to spray the plant with any pesticides, and we didn’t have ladybugs in the store at the time, so I tried the hard blast of water technique that we recommend as a first line of defense. Of course this would have worked best if I had H2O’d the aphids back when I first spotted them. I was hoping to knock them senseless and spray away their fallen remains. As it turned out, I think they all linked hands, as if they were playing ‘Red Rover, Red Rover’, and they did NOT let my water come over!
(This is usually a good first line of defense, WHEN you catch the problem early and do something about it.)
On to Plan B. I figured I was a couple months away from the Monarch migration so I took a risk and chopped off the tops of each plant that was hosting the offending suckers, bagged up the clipped stems covered with aphids and tossed them in the trash. I carefully looked over the plant and saw nary an aphid left, and although my milkweed looked a little butchered, I knew it to be a fairly resilient plant. I figured I might be cutting it close, but I was pretty sure I had time for new growth to sprout and produce flowers before the butterflies arrived. Fast forward to this week and it turns out I was right! The new growth was produced and flower buds started popping. Oh joy! And guess what else came back? That’s right, those little, sap-sucking pests came right back! Oh sorrow! I couldn’t believe the nerve of them. I think they even invited more to the party this time around. Maybe I had stressed my plant out when I cut it and a stressed plant is pretty much a bat signal for pests to swoop in and attack. What to do now? My flowers had started blooming, the Monarchs would be here in a few weeks, so I couldn’t afford to hack off the tops this time.
(My goal was for this to happen in October! Photo courtesy of our very own Laura Jarvis)
I had begrudgingly resigned myself to allow the plant to be left alone, let the aphids suck away and hope that the milkweed would still remain somewhat appealing to at least a few Monarchs. I went to work with this on my mind, when what do I see sitting on the counter? A new shipment of ladybugs had come in over the weekend and there were a couple of tubs left. I greedily scooped one up and set it aside, happy with the anticipation of releasing them that evening to devour some aphids. Dusk came around and I found myself at a softball practice for my daughter instead of at home releasing the army of ladybugs. It would have to wait one more night.
(Woo-hoo! We usually only get them in spring, but a few came in this fall!)
The next morning on my way to work I checked in on the aphids as had been my routine, and what I saw made me stop in my tracks. The only telltale sign of any aphid activity was some sticky residue left over by their secretions. Instead of the aphids, I found the tops of my milkweed plant replaced with what looked like teeny, tiny alligators. What was going on here? Divine intervention? Well, sort of. It turns out that those teeny, tiny alligators were actually the larvae of the green lacewing. And it also turns out that when it comes to having a voracious appetite for aphids, lacewing larvae give ladybugs a run for their money. The fact that they are nocturnal predators explains why the aphids were cleaned out literally over night. It was truly amazing to see. A fall miracle! It reaffirmed my preferred attitude of letting nature take its own course. And while I appreciate how lucky I was this time, I do plan to take better measures in the future to avoid another out-of-control infestation next time. But meanwhile, I have a newfound respect for the green lacewing in its aggressive larval form, and I thank them for doing my dirty work.
(Not baby alligators after all, just lacewing larvae. Milkweed clean and free of aphids)
Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll find something in my garden for the ladybugs to eat. They’re still my favorite!
The Happy Gardener