Any of you who have been following me for a while will know that I am first and foremost a naturalist and nature-lover, and beekeeping gives me an excuse to indulge this longstanding interest of mine. It also requires and inspires me to think holistically about how I can help my honey bees and consequently the other insects (birds, mammals, plants etc etc) around them.
Take aphids. They are the weeds and wasps of the hemipteran world, despised and detested for their sap-sucking, viral-carrying, leaf-distorting, mildew-encouraging lifestyle. See this from the Royal Horticultural Society (hardly the bastion of progressive environmental thinking I grant you but they have a large following):
They do go on to suggest tolerating aphids where possible, and highlighting the dangers of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, but there is nothing in favour of aphids, or how they can actually be useful. As with all things in nature, it is about creating a balance, and there is this rather back to front thinking about encouraging predatory insects or birds to deal with pests. They exist where there is a plentiful supply of food; they are not contracted out or wandering around looking for it. Aphids form a valuable food source for breeding songbirds, as well as spiders, ladybirds, lacewings, wasps, and a multitude of others. Their vast numbers should be celebrated, and the plants on which they feed will send out a pheromonal call to arms to encourage predators to feast – but only if the predators are there. These aphids on a dock are right by the hedgerow, and perfect for the blue and great tits, and other birds that are currently attempting second broods after the cold wet spring.
I noticed a bumblebee feeding on the leaves of a blackthorn: she was licking up honeydew left by the numerous aphids on the undersides. You can see the white cases where the nymphs have moulted.
Sycamore and cherry trees seem to attract aphids in quantity and I often hear a happy hum when walking under them as the bees collect the honeydew, thus reducing the likelihood of mildew problems. Aphid aggregations are often farmed by ants as they too eat the sugary liquid, and will drive predatory ladybirds away from their livestock; birds will eat both ants and aphids – my hens pick over the nettles and docks looking for them.