Of Aphids and Ants; Continuing tales fron Esperanza

People don’t like aphid, but they have a remarkable life cycle and fascinating history.
So before you look down upon the lowly aphid read on…

The Manna from Heaven that the Israelites ate while strolling through the desert might well have been honeydew from aphids or other insects!
Aphids produce a sweet sticky substance called honey dew, if you don’t believe me, go feel the plants where they have been… sticky.
If you are still skeptical, lick your fingers (euee gross.) In the ancient Oaks and Olives, large quantities of honey dew would freeze in the night. When the sun arose and warmed the frozen dew…, bonk!
Manna, right on your noggin! It’s a wonder that the Jews didn’t come up with the idea of gravity. (Was Newton Jewish?)
Man” is the common Arabic name for aphids, and man es simma (the “manna of heaven”) for honeydew.
In the Mideast, people still collect the sweet excretions (which is a nice word for phoo) of scale insects that feed on tamarisk. They call it “man” and make halva out of it. (Lest we feel superior in our culinary habits, a large portion of bee honey is actually honeydew harvested from the surface of plants.)
Aphids pierce the phloem tubes of plants with their sharp mouthparts and suck out the sugary goodies in transit there. (Phloem is the tube that transports food, mostly sugar to all parts of the plant. Xylem transports water.)
Aphids process this food and excrete drops (honeydew) rich in sugars, free amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), proteins, minerals and vitamins. Move over Whole Foods!

Some aphids shoot this waste away from their bodies, but other species of aphids have learned to excrete a drop on from their rear end when an ant taps them with foreleg or antennae. Then the ant eats it (and you thought humans were kinky!) Later, the ant will regurgitate part of the honeydew for it’s nest mates.
You could try this if you’re not worried about what the neighbors might think.
Sometimes aphids are called “ant cows”.
Ants like honeydew as much as the Israelites did. Through the winter, some ants take aphid eggs down into their colonies to protect them, bringing them up to graze in the springtime. If you look closely, you may see small cowboy hats on the ants… or maybe not.
Each aphid species has its own life cycle, but there are some features uniting nearly all of them.
One feature most species share is that they are incredibly prolific, worse than rabbits!
Wingless adult female aphids can produce 50 to 100 offspring. A newly born aphid becomes a reproducing adult within about a week and then can produce up to 5 offspring per day for up to 30 days!
If all the descendants of a single aphid survived the summer and were arranged four abreast, their line would exceed the circumference of the earth at the equator! Now that’s a lot of honeydew! Dentists LOVE them.
Even more amazing is that most of this reproduction takes place without the interference of males!
This is known as parthenogenesis. (From the Greek parthenos, “virgin”, + genesis, “creation”.)
When mother aphids reproduce parthenogenetically, instead of laying eggs they give birth directly to smaller editions of themselves. An “average” aphid life cycle goes a little something like this: (stop me if you’ve heard this one.)
In spring, an egg hatches, producing a wingless female aphid who almost immediately begins parthenogenetically producing new wingless females. Generation follows generation of wingless females; I think I saw one wearing “an aphid without a male is like a fish without a bicycle” tee shirt. Then hot weather arrives, or maybe the plant they are living on dies, some of the females grow wings and fly off. I wish I could do that!
This new generation of female winged aphid find a plant host of a completely different species from that on which their spring generations have developed.
Typically, when it’s time to move back to the plant species on which aphid winters, (kind of like wintering in the Hamptons) some aphids develop into males.
Sexual reproduction takes place, but apparently, it’s nothing to write home about because when the eggs hatch (in the spring) there are no males in sight.
Try explaining that in Spanish! The kids take this in stride.
But the dads don’t like it. One said, “Thank God I’m not an aphid.”
Usually parthenogenesis is followed by a brief bout of sexual reproduction just to keep the gene pool fresh.

Of Ladybugs and Larva, continuing tale from the Esperanza garden

  (The sunflowers have taken over!)


Then someone  cut the heads from some of our largest sunflowers
Alex my 15 year old birder put up signs all over.

“Don’t Cut the Flowers! We are watching you!”

Oddly enough, it appears to have worked.
Still, someone has been taking the green tomatoes, crushing them, and removing melons before they can ripen.

… We put out this message in English and Spanish
 Dear folks who are taking green tomatoes and unripe melons from our garden.

We know you must be very sad and angry to want to hurt our plants.

We are very sorry that you feel so bad.

If you will just let everything ripen, then you could eat it.

We’d MUCH rather you enjoyed it rather than destroyed it…

We want you to enjoy the garden too!

Thanks, The Children Gardeners

The Spanish version is MUCH longer and more elaborately worded.
However, we have some very exciting developments.

First, not only do we have myriad ladybug, we also have lady bug eggs and larva!
 We have actually seen ladybugs emerge from the pupas!

In the spring, the adults lay up to three hundred eggs in an aphid colony.  The eggs hatch in two to five days.  The time it takes for a ladybug egg to hatch and become an adult takes about 3 to 6 weeks.

Ladybug eggs are very small, yellow ovals. Ladybugs lay their eggs on the undersides of leaves to keep them protected from predators.
Baby ladybugs (ladybug larvae) are rather creepy looking, but now that the kids know what they are they love ‘em.

Lady bug life cycle

 Baby ladybugs spend their days eating and eating and eating, then they have a snack and eat some more! They can eat up to 400 aphids in 2 to 3 weeks .  The newly hatched larvae feed on aphids for up to three weeks, and then they enter the pupa stage. After the babies have filled their little bellies and grown a bit, they attach themselves to a leaf and pupate. This is the transition stage when in about a week they will turn into a beautiful little adult ladybug the adult ladybug emerges about a week later.  However, they usually do not have their spots for their first 24 hours of adulthood. So, if you see one without spots, you may have found a brand new adult.

Genesis is a brilliant, sweet child. She is lacking legs and a thumb, but her warmth, humor and intelligence win all. She discovered our first hatchling. It was very pale.


There may be as many as six generations of ladybugs hatched in a year. 


Ladybugs are a kind of beetle.  The female ladybug is usually larger than the male.  Most of them have red, orange, or yellow elytra (wing covers) and black spots. Some are black with red spots and some ladybugs have no spots at all!  The number of spots helps to identify the kind of ladybug. The elytra is a hard wing cover that protects the ladybug’s fragile wings. All beetles have elytra. Ladybug’s wings are so thin that you can see through them. 

The pronotum is found just behind the ladybug’s head and it often has spots on it.  It helps to hide and protect the head. Like all insects, the ladybug has six jointed legs. There are special organs on their feet to help them smell.  (Butterflies & Bees smell with their feet too.) The ladybug uses its antennae to touch, smell and taste.  


We also have aphids. I have found that if you have milkweed (which I always do as it is the host plant for Monarch caterpillars and butterflies.) The aphids remain there. We have Oleander aphids, which are orange. There are many species of aphids… and I imagine they are numerous as the stars that shine & twinkle in the milky way… ours slime & stinkle on the milky weed. (That’s poetic license actually, they don’t smell.)

Host plants are restricted to oleander, butterfly weed and milkweed. Aphids spend most of their lives with their straw-like beaks stuck into leaves and stems, sucking out sweet plant juices. But, aphids do not usually cause plant health to suffer. The up side is, is that if you have aphids ladybugs will follow.

When I showed up at the garden yesterday, many of the sunflowers were beheaded. I was feeling a tad depressed when I ran into one of the dads.

“Miss Elizabeth,” he exclaimed with pride. “I cut the flowers so they will be healthy and branch more!”

Well, while that works for some plants sunflowers aren’t one of them. Still, it’s better than vandals!

The kids and I ate some of the seed that were ripe.

We gathered tropic oregano, rosemary, lemon balm, spearmint and chocolate mint for them to take home for cooking and tea.

Tropical oregano org
Plectranthus amboinicus is a succulent that smells and tastes like very strong oregano. The leaves have also had many traditional medicinal uses; treatment of coughs, sore throats, nasal congestion, infections, rheumatism and flatulence.  In Indonesia Plectranthus amboinicus is a used in soup to stimulate lactation for the month or so following childbirth.

A Journalism student from USC stopped by and wants to do a story on us (YEAH!) He promised to return Saturday. He had a British accent, so the kids were properly impressed.

Of Budgies and Ballparks or continuing tales from Esperanza

budgie The garden grows.

The Budgie is jealous of his home. When we water, he waits anxiously in the branches above, waiting for us to leave.

Not that he’s antisocial. He entertains sparrows daily.


Two thuggish youth watched me water.

“This your garden?”

“…Well…” I began.

“Looks great!”

“Thank you thugs, “I replied (no not really.)


The kids have decided to build more houses for our other trees. Maybe we’ll get more escaped immigrants.

We have tomatoes, cucumbers, spices, flowers, mints and some weird melonish thingie. (That’s the botanical term.)

We have planted myriad wildflower. I saw my first butterfly today, not a monarch…but they will come.

Like building a ball park. (If you build it… they will come.)

I don’t expect shoeless Joe, but I do expect shoeless monarchs.


Someone has put rich soil all around the magnolia trees.


We (me and Irene 8 and Alex 14) gave a mosaic workshop at SAJE today. Eventually we will mosaic a bench/planter combo.


Afterward Irene and I took some pieces from the Kiln.P1000502

“Wow,” I said. “They came out fantastic!”

(They had been fired and refired about 5 times!)
“Yep,” she replied. “I never gave up on these.”

“As well you shouldn’t.”

“You’re my favorite art teacher.”

““Aren’t I you only art teacher?”

“I have had others, and they always made you do what they say. You let us do what we want.”

“Well, that’s how art should be,” I said. “There are certain ways to do things… but…”

(Also, I suck at discipline.)

“I’m going to keep this forever,” she said holding a vase close to her chest.

“I’m going to keep this my whole life; I’m going to be buried with it. And whenever I look at it, I will think of you. I will never forget you,”

I’m not a crier, but she got me.

The Budgie in the Birdhouse; Or Continuing tales from Esperanza

Our Garden is amazing!

Contrary to dire prediction, the neighborhood is respecting it. Our vegetables are allowed to ripen.

Yesterday Chris presented me with a despondent chrysanthemum to plant.

 Because we have scattered much bird seed in the garden, we have a fine crop of sunflowers and grain as well as veggies, salvias, milkweed and mints.

We weeded and thinned the grains and seeded vibrant varieties of wildflowers.

 Do you remember, Alex, a 14 year old boy asked me if he could build a bird house? He even brought in food for the birds. (It was actually small animal food, but the concept was there.) He built two, one with a plastic bottle designed to gradually release seed, the other an open box he painted baby blue.

He’s been wondering why no birds come to his feeders?

“Be patient: First, we have seed all over and many birds are eating from the ground. Second, let them get used to it.” 

Well Guess what?!

A small blue budgie has moved into the blue bird house!

I think I’m more excited than the kids!

It’s obviously an escapee looking for a safe home.

The blue bird house is just his shade and size.

Perfect move in-condition.

 Casey and I made a bird food run yesterday.

She is an adorable girl, a good artist a dedicated gardener and a lousy navigator!

She was planning a trip to Vegas (“only 2 hours from the city.”) for bird seed.

I guess that high desert seed is the best.

 Alex is in a camp for a week so he doesn’t yet know the budgie broadcast.