Q. I was out this past weekend, sweeping up and noticed strange black stuff on the needles of my Afghan pine tree. On closer inspection I found gobs of small, black, mostly winged bugs congregated just where the needles join the small branch. They were milling about and it’s really yucky knowing they are there. What sort of bugs do you think are living in my pine, should I be concerned, and if so, what should I do about them? – P.G., Albuquerque
A. With the description of these yucky critters having wings, I’m confident that your Afghan pine is hosting more than its fair share of aphids. Yes, aphids.
Most people, when you say aphids, think of green bugs. But they can and do come in lots of different colors. I think they are color-coded to a certain extent. I’ve seen the green, of course, but also black, a pale purple-grey, and some that I swear were pink.
The simplest way to treat for this infestation will be to spray the tree with the hardest stream of water that the tree can withstand. Be sure to aim at the clusters. Your goal is to dislodge and maim as many of them as you possibly can.
Once they get sprayed off the tree, they will be rather tattered and shouldn’t be able to recoup. You should spray the tree weekly to keep disrupting the clusters for the time being. That should take care of the majority of these aphids.
You’ll want to monitor the infestation to see if the water spraying keeps them in check, so don’t forget about them.
In the spring, if the majority have been taken care of, consider releasing ladybugs. When they mate and the young hatch, that’s when the ladybug is at its most voracious. Munching down on aphids are the best thing they do.
Remember that when you release the ladybugs, you don’t want to apply a pesticide. But we’re weeks away from being able to find any ladybugs for sale, so for the time being you might want to – especially if the infestation is too hearty – consider treating with a pesticide.
If you have it already in your pharmacopoeia, use a pesticide called dormant oil and give the tree an application after you’ve done the hard spray of water.
The oil will clog up the aphids’ breathing apparatus and coat them with a slight (to us), sticky go6,o keeping them from maturing. A spraying of dormant oil would be the absolutely safest pesticide I will recommend.
You could also go ahead and spray all of your other shrubs, roses and trees with the oil while you’re at it to help keep everything more pest-free this time of year.
If the oil doesn’t seem to do the trick, then the next step up would be applying an insecticidal soap spray. And no, that’s not Dawn dish detergent.
Insecticidal soap is the common name for potassium salts of fatty acids. The fatty acids disrupt the exoskeleton of a pest, making it impossible to continue life as it knows it. It’s a pretty “safe” pesticide, but I want you to be aware that it is a pesticide, so treat it and any pesticide you apply with respect.
I harp on this every year, so again, READ THE LABEL to be sure you are mixing the proper dosage when you do apply a pesticide.
Applied through a hose end sprayer you should get a good “kill,” so going into growing season your pine will have a lot fewer aphids sucking the life out of it, and making the tree weaker, inviting a whole host of other troubles.
Either of those two pesticides – applied after the strong hosing of water – will get your pine more aphid-free and ready to receive your ladybug release later this year.
Granted, most of the ladybugs will fly away to “greener pastures” so to speak, but some will hang around, mate and hatch into the next generation.
It’s always a treat to find young ladybugs in the gardens. Just get out there and spray the pine hard to gain the upper hand on these pesky critters, and do it soon.
Happy Diggin’ In on the way to getting your plant life healthier.
Tracey Fitzgibbon is a certified nurseryman. Send garden-related questions to Digging In, Albuquerque Journal, 7777 Jefferson NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109, or to firstname.lastname@example.org.