What's Eating the Roots of my Plants?
Some species of aphids actually live in the root zone of plants, feeding on the roots instead of the foliage. These most often will be woolly aphids, covering themselves with dense mats of the white wax they exude. Many of them also are serious pests of agricultural crops, such as those that attack grape vines, cabbage, sugar beet, corn, as well as some on conifers.
The adult aphids deposit eggs on twigs or stalks of plants above ground in the fall, and the eggs over-winter. Depending on the species the new aphids hatching from them in the spring may move to the roots of plants to feed, or sometimes it is a 2 host species and may feed above ground on the plant and on roots in later generations.
The Sugar Beet Root Aphid is a potentially serious pest of these crops. Eggs hatch in the spring to become the wingless nymphs, which then feed on the new leaves. As they feed the leaf distorts to form a pocket, or “gall”, and the aphids then deposit eggs within this pocket. These hatch to winged forms that migrate to other areas and may then choose sugar beets as their host plant. After the land they then produce the next generation of wingless nymphs which move down to the roots to feed.
Because they often are hidden underground you may not suspect aphids as the culprit, but just notice a general decline in the health of the plant. Digging around the roots at the upper layer of the soil should reveal the aphids and their white woolly masses if they are present. You may even notice the winged adults crawling up a stem from the root area.
There are also some kinds of mealybugs that attack roots, and may be mistaken for the aphids, but careful examination with a magnifier would reveal the distinct aphids within the waxy mass. Controlling root aphids is difficult, and pesticides offer little help. In affected food crops there is more reliance on cultural practices of planting the crops at the proper time to avoid the aphids while the plant grows rapidly to get to a tolerant state. There also are several predatory insects that help kill the aphids like... Lady Bugs!
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