**** ROTATE **** **** ROTATE **** **** ROTATE **** **** ROTATE ****

Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!


by [?]

But what good do the aphides themselves derive from the power of secreting honey-dew? For we know now that no animal or plant is ever provided with any organ or part merely for the benefit of another creature: the advantage must at least be mutual. Well, in the first place, it is likely that, in any case, the amount of sugary matter in the food of the aphides is quite in excess of their needs; they assimilate the nitrogenous material of the sap, and secrete its saccharine material as honey-dew. That, however, would hardly account for the development of special secretory ducts, like the honey-tubes, in which you can actually see the little drops of honey rolling, under the microscope. But the ants are useful allies to the aphides, in guarding them from another very dangerous type of insect. They are subject to the attacks of an ichneumon fly, which lays its eggs in them, meaning its larvae to feed upon their living bodies; and the ants watch over the aphides with the greatest vigilance, driving off the ichneumons whenever they approach their little proteges.

Many other insects besides ants, however, are fond of the sweet secretions of the aphides, and it is probable that the honey-dew thus acts to some extent as a preservative of the species, by diverting possible foes from the insects themselves, to the sugary liquid which they distil from their food-plants. Having more than enough and to spare for all their own needs, and the needs of their offspring, the plant-lice can afford to employ a little of their nutriment as a bribe to secure them from the attacks of possible enemies. Such compensatory bribes are common enough in the economy of nature. Thus our common English vetch secretes a little honey on the stipules or wing-like leaflets on the stem, and so distracts thieving ants from committing their depredations upon the nectaries in the flowers, which are intended for the attraction of the fertilising bees; and a South American acacia, as Mr. Belt has shown, bears hollow thorns and produces honey from a gland in each leaflet, in order to allure myriads of small ants which nest in the thorns, eat the honey, and repay the plant by driving away their leaf-cutting congeners. Indeed, as they sting violently, and issue forth in enormous swarms whenever the plant is attacked, they are even able to frighten off browsing cattle from their own peculiar acacia.

Aphides, then, are essentially degraded insects, which have become almost vegetative in their habits, and even in their mode of reproduction, but which still retain a few marks of their original descent from higher and more locomotive ancestors. Their wings, especially, are useful to the perfect forms in finding one another, and to the imperfect ones in migrating from one plant to its nearest neighbours, where they soon become the parents of fresh hordes in rapid succession. Hence various kinds of aphides are among the most dreaded plagues of agriculturists. The ‘fly,’ which Kentish farmers know so well on hops, is an aphis specialised for that particular bine; and, when once it appears in the gardens, it spreads with startling rapidity from one end of the long rows to the other. The phylloxera which has spoilt the French vineyards is a root-feeding form that attacks the vine, and kills or maims the plant terribly, by sucking the vital juices on their way up into the fresh-forming foliage. The ‘American blight’ on apple trees is yet another member of the same family, a wee creeping cottony creature that hides among the fissures of the bark, and drives its very long beak far down into the green sappy layer underlying the dead outer covering. In fact, almost all the best-known ‘blights’ and bladder-forming insects are aphides of one kind or another, affecting leaves, or stalks, or roots, or branches.

It is one of the most remarkable examples of the limitation of human powers that while we can easily exterminate large animals like the wolf and the bear in England, or the puma and the wolverine in the settled States of America, we should be so comparatively weak against the Colorado beetle or the fourteen-year locust, and so absolutely powerless against the hop-fly, the turnip-fly, and the phylloxera. The smaller and the more insignificant our enemy, viewed individually, the more difficult is he to cope with in the mass. All the elephants in the world could have been hunted down and annihilated, in all probability, with far less labour than has been expended upon one single little all but microscopic parasite in France alone. The enormous rapidity of reproduction in the family of aphides is the true cause of our helplessness before them. It has been calculated that a single aphis may during its own lifetime become the progenitor of 5,904,900,000 descendants. Each imperfect female produces about ninety young ones, and lives long enough to see its children’s children to the fifth generation. Now, ninety multiplied by ninety four times over gives the number above stated. Of course, this makes no allowance for casualties which must be pretty frequent: but even so, the sum-total of aphides produced within a small garden in a single summer must be something very extraordinary.