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‘Plant Lice’ taking over trees as spring sets in

Posted at 8:49 PM, May 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-27 22:49:44-04

ROY, Utah – As warmer weather sets in, residents in Weber County are reporting an influx in aphids, also known as ‘plant lice.’

Step into Bethany Smith’s backyard in Roy, Utah, you’ll see a prized possession.

“It’s a very large cherry tree,” Bethany smiled as she looked up at the 2-story tall beauty.

“I’ve got tree pride over here!” she laughed.

From the ground up – the tree looks healthy with hundreds of green, lush leaves. But take a closer look, you’ll notice clumps of leaves appear black in color and many are curling, dead and brown.

“That’s actually bugs,” Bethany said as she pointed to the end of a branch.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of aphids covering clusters of leaves at the ends of more than a dozen low-handing branches.

“We just purchased the home a few years ago, we had never had fruit trees, we didn’t even know this was a problem,” said Bethany.

Last year, Bethany said the bugs weren’t an issue, they never saw them and didn’t need to treat the tree. This year, the bugs came and they came fast.

“We got back from a camping trip and found that it was covered in bugs,” she said.

“Look at all that under there,” she said as she pointed to another cluster of bug-covered leaves.

The tiny pests, commonly known as ‘plant lice’ effect most food crops, fruit trees, roses and other flowering plants.

“They suck on the plant using their straw-like mouthparts,” said Jason Lamarr, owner of Legacy Pest Control. “Exude a nasty substance.”

As the bugs eat the leaves, they start to ‘sap’ essentially killing the leaves. If they are on the plant for a prolonged period of time, the leaves start to curl up, turn brown and die.

For fruit trees, like Bethany’s, that process can prevent the fruit from growing. If it does grow, the aphids get the first bite.

“It’s really shiny and sappy as the bugs drain the leaves,” Bethany said as she turned over a glossy-looking leaf.

According to Utah State University’s Integrated Pest Management extension, Aphids can be killed in a number of ways.

They can be washed off with a strong stream of water, horticultural oils can be applied to overwintering eggs in the spring, insecticidal soap can be used on nymphs and adults, a systemic insecticide can be used in the spring and a cover spray (known as pyrethroids) can be used anytime aphids are present.

Of course, there are natural predators.

“The ladybugs love to eat aphids,” Bethany smiled.

Lamarr said there’s no rhyme or reason to why this year we are seeing more than year’s past.

“It’s always something different every year but the weather, sometimes things fall in place for certain insects,” he added.

The pests are no stranger to Utah with more than 500 species commonly found across the state. However, the mild winter and now dry, warm spring could be contributing to an early onset of pests and lots of them.

Adding to a boost in numbers, the pests don’t rely on sexual reproduction. Instead, female aphids reproduce parthenogenetically, meaning there is no need for male fertilization.

And while the bugs don’t harm humans and won’t entirely kill your plant – these pests, are just that.

“A nuisance, yeah, it’s a pest that people don’t like to have around that’s for sure,” said Lamarr.

Bethany said they plan to treat their tree tonight, but they want to do it naturally since they eat the fruit that grows on it. She said they intend to spray soapy water onto the tree and will purchase ladybugs to release at the base of the trunk – a process that has worked for them in years past.

“I think it’s just one of those bug years!” said Bethany. “I think we still have a chance because I don’t see any cherries yet.”