|My wife has moved the two green pepper plants into the room with our hot tub. Our hot tub is indoors, overlooking the back yard, in a room glassed in on all sides. We keep it covered when not in use, but I use it every day when I’m thinking about my blog articles. The pots with the plants are large, a couple of feet in diameter.
Each plant has a colony of aphids living on it. The one with the most fruit on it has green peach aphids, like the one pictured above right. The other one has orange aphids, which I can’t find pictures of online, though except for colour they are identical to the green ones, and there are also some of the winged variety, which are only slightly larger and black, with fragile, single-veined wings.
Aphids are pretty smart. They won’t kill the plants they feed on — when there are too many of them to keep their host plant healthy, or if the host plant is sick, they will start breeding mostly the winged variety and leave the plant. That’s one of the reasons they’ve been around for 280 million years, I guess. They are astonishingly prolific. They reproduce both sexually and asexually (self-cloning), through both live birth and eggs, and embryos often carry daughter-embryos and grand-daughter embryos within them, just waiting their turn to be born (the vast majority of aphids are female). The so-called ‘honeydew’ they secrete is the excess sugar from the plants they suck nutrients from. They can only fly at 2 mph on their own steam, but will often take the night air currents up 3,000 feet and then average 30 mph following the jetstream over a 9-hour overnight flight, descending in the morning and picking out their new host plant by colour as they land. Some aphids will, in times of stress, breed up to 50% of a stronger ‘soldier’ variety, which defend the colony and neither eat nor breed during their short lives.
We all learn about aphids as ‘ant cows’, though it’s not slavery. Ants can quickly become addicted to the sugary aphid ‘honeydew’, and spend enormous effort overfeeding ‘their’ aphids so that the aphids excrete not only the addictive sugar but enough other nutrients to keep the ants alive. The instinct in ants is so strong that they will look after and feed aphids even if the aphids fail to give them their ‘fix’. What kills some plants are the viruses that aphids carry, and a fungus that grows beneath the ‘honeydew’ if it’s not eaten by wasps, ants and other insects. But spraying is futile, as it is more likely to harm ladybugs, lacewings and other insects and birds that eat the aphids than the aphids themselves, and hence often backfires.
I watched a single aphid exploring the side of the hot-tub cover. It took the creature 20 minutes to traverse from one side to the other, and I’d say it found the journey interesting. What is this giant hot puddle, so intense that its condensation alone is enough to slake the thirst of any creature of a size fathomable by an aphid? And this strange flat skin, with the smell of hydrocarbon instead of living flesh — What kind of beast is this? Why are my brethren content to spend most of their lives on that one plant over there, when there are so many other wonders in this world to discover and investigate?
As tiny as it is (it would fit comfortably on the head of a pin, and the photo above is magnified hundreds-fold) it packs a lot into a small package: in addition to its sophisticated and multi-faced reproductive biology, it has two compound multi-lensed eyes, an elephant-like proboscis, two complex four-segment antennae, wings (when needed), a five-segment body, six legs, two pheromone-secreting cornical tubes for sending alerts to other aphids, and a tail (cauda). And it has a brain that has been extensively studied. So it seems to me it must live a rich sensory life, both conscious and sub-conscious.
What does an aphid think? I have hypothesized before that the basis for emotions is sensory, not rational, and that most animals probably feel emotions more varied and profound than we relatively sensory-deprived humans. I find no reason to believe that tiny creatures can’t feel emotions just because there’s no room for the requisite chemicals in their brains — nature is able to scale extremely powerfully, and if there’s room for sophisticated language, ruse, and reasoning capability in the brains of parrots and corvids I think it’s likely there is also room for very powerful emotions, and more ‘intellect’ than we might imagine, in the tiniest of creatures.
So I imagine that while aphids probably don’t imagine or invent (not because they couldn’t, but because from an evolutionary perspective there’s no reason, no need for them to have developed this faculty, so they haven’t), I believe that they think and feel. If they didn’t, what reason would they have to live, to procreate, to evolve as they have done for a period 100 times longer than humans? It makes no sense to me that nature would have evolved ‘dumb’ species that followed a prescribed program without thought or feeling. Like many human ‘programs’, such un-self-correcting creations would be very dangerous, integrate poorly into life communities, and act excessively in ways that would often be detrimental to life as a whole. Self-managing systems need their intelligence and sensitivity highly devolved and decentralized, for resilience and adaptability, and to optimize the success of the whole.
This is just a theory, of course, a hunch, an instinct, something that just ‘makes sense’ to me in the context of everything else I know and believe. Either I’m inappropriately and immodestly idealistic in believing this theory, or else it is correct.
If I’m correct, then the aphid I’m looking at right now does think and feel. She wonders. She is curious. She experiences the profound joy of living, and the commensurate desire to go on living. She enjoys the company of and communication with others. She is driven to learn and gets satisfaction from doing so. She experiences emotional grief and/or physical pain at being lost, separated, witnessing the death of a fellow creature, or being stepped on. She cares about all the life she can fathom, and as long as she lives she fathoms more, and passes along more knowledge, and more reason to care, in her DNA. That is why she is here.
What she doesn’t do, I’d guess, is worry. It seems to me worry requires an arrogance of control, an assumption that there is something we (or some other human) could be or should be doing or could have or should have done, different from what we actually ‘choose’ to do. The opposite of worry is acceptance. My aphid accepts the inevitability of death, with equanimity (a composed mind) and grace (a composed heart). I find that kind of humbling.
I suspect, too, she does not fear death. She wants to live, and she is not ignorant of the fact and the sting of death (if you doubt this, just observe how quickly and cleverly the tiniest of creatures secret themselves away when they ‘smell’ a human or other predator close at hand). But as she scurries along the edge of the hot tub, inches away from a strange and certain death by drowning, she knows that every action in life, every step, every exploration, is a calculated risk. But she knows that she must do these things, utterly new things, death-defying things, and what we might see in another creature as acts of astonishing courage, are to her simple imperatives, thrilling, wondrous, terrifying, remarkable, pulse-pounding must-do‘s. The aphid philosophy, one that perhaps we could learn from, were we not so cowed by our bloated, disconnected, over-rationalizing brains: Do it or die.
Aphid information mostly courtesy of Gordon Ramel.