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Sticky Business: How to get rid of Aphids on Fruit Trees

Aphids on fruit trees. Their honeydew attracts other pests like ants, seen in this photo. Getting rid of aphids in fruit trees.
Aphids on fruit trees. Their honeydew attracts other pests like ants, seen in this photo. Photo credit: OrchardPeople.com

In 2017, my neighbourhood was hit with an aphid invasion. Swarms of aphids gathered on fruit trees and other plants, sucking the life out of our beloved trees and plants and leaving them weak and bedraggled. Inevitably, the branches were also covered with a sticky substance that I later learned was aphid poop. Yuk!

Wherever I went, I would see trees in distress. At first, I thought the fruit trees in our community orchard were going to be ok. They seemed to be unaffected. But then, almost overnight, hordes of these tiny critters gathered on the leaves, sucking the juices out of them.

How aphids damage fruit trees

Aphids are like little vampires. Also known as “plant lice” these insects are from the insect order Hemiptera. There are thousands of aphid species and they can vary in colour size and shape depending on the species and their stage of development.

What they all have in common is that they use their piercing-sucking mouth parts to feed on plant tissue. When it comes to fruit trees, aphids suck out the sweet sugary sap that the tree uses to power its biological functions.

Green aphids on a fruit tree. Getting rid of aphids in fruit trees.
Green aphids on a fruit tree. There are thousands of species of aphids and they can vary in colour, size and shape. Photo credit: OrchardPeople.com.

Essentially, the aphids are stealing the food your fruit tree needs to survive. The aphids damage the tree’s leaves and shoots. Without energy for self-repair, your tree’s growth may become stunted and it will produce poorer quality fruit.

To add insult to injury, the aphids will poop out a sugary substance euphemistically called “honeydew” which will cover tree leaves, stems and branches. And the honeydew attracts other pests, like ants and wasps, that feed on it. Sooty mould can also form on the honeydew, reducing your tree’s ability to produce energy through photosynthesis.

So, as you can see, these tiny aphids can cause a real mess if they are allowed to feast on your fruit trees.

The question is, what do you do about it?

Black aphids on a fruit tree leaf. Getting rid of aphids in fruit trees.
Aphids can make a mess of your fruit trees. They weaken the tree resulting in slower growth and poor fruit production. Photo credit: OrchardPeople.com.

Getting rid of aphids on fruit trees with dormant sprays

When it comes to fruit trees, the best cure for almost every problem is prevention. And there is one spray that I think every home grower should use that can protect fruit trees from many types of insect pests.

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I am talking about dormant oil sprays. These sprays are applied during the winter months when the tree is dormant and has no leaves, blossoms or fruit. The oils in the spray coat the branches and bark of your tree, suffocating overwintering insects that are hiding in cracks and crevices.

If you want to get rid of aphids on your fruit trees, there are various dormant oil sprays to choose from including Green Earth Dormant Spray Kit and Monterey Dormant Horticultural Oil. Whatever you choose, carefully read the instructions, because if you apply these oils incorrectly, you can seriously damage your tree.

And in any case, if you already have aphid activity on your fruit trees, you’re probably too late for a dormant spray since the tree will no longer be dormant. So, let’s look for the next option when it comes to killing aphids on fruit trees.

Getting rid of aphids on fruit trees with insecticidal soap

Simple, homemade insecticidal soap can kill aphids. You can make it at home (recipe below) and spray the aphids every few days. When the soap spray covers aphids, it penetrates the protective waxy layer on their bodies and messes with their ability to retain water. Then the moisture in their little bodies leaks out and the aphid becomes dehydrated and dies.

But that process takes time and calls for repeated applications. The cherry trees in the Ben Nobleman Park Community Orchard are quite large, so that wasn’t an option for us.

Person uses a garden hose to wash off leaves of tree.Getting rid of aphids in fruit trees.
You can wash aphids off the leaves of your tree with water. This prevents immediate feeding on the leaves, but some of the aphids will find their way into the canopy again.

Getting rid of aphids on fruit trees with water

Another option is to just take a hose and wash the aphids off of the leaves. No soap is needed. Sure, some of the aphids may crawl or fly back up into your tree, but this will stop immediate feeding and slow down the attack enough to give beneficial insects time to find the aphids and feast on them.

Close up of ladybug larvae on a cherry tree feasting on aphids. Getting rid of aphids in fruit trees.
Ladybug larvae look like little alligators and they are voracious aphid eaters! Ladybugs and other beneficial insects will help you get rid of aphids and other pests in your fruit trees. Photo credit: OrchardPeople.com.

Getting rid of aphids on fruit trees with beneficial insects

In the long term, the best way to protect your fruit tree from aphids is to have nature do the work for you.

Make sure you have a pollinator garden near your fruit tree. Ensure that you have planted a wide diversity of plants, including native plants, that will attract beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings throughout the growing season.

With lots of nectar or pollen to enjoy throughout the growing season and a healthy habitat to support them, these beneficial insects will stay in your garden. Then when aphids and other pests appear, they will prey on insect pests and act as a free pest control team for your garden.

This can be one step towards turning your yard into a food forest where the plants and trees can be both resilient and productive.

Ladybud pupa on cherry tree eating aphids. Getting rid of aphids in fruit trees.
A plump and cute ladybug pupa feasts on aphids in the Ben Nobleman Park Community Orchard in Toronto. Photo credit: OrchardPeople.com.

How did we get rid of the aphids in our fruit trees?

So what happened in our orchard? Well, we had been tending our pollinator garden for almost a decade at that point, and it worked. Within days I started to notice chubby little pupa (see in the photo above) showed up on the tree. I wasn’t sure if they were good guys or bad guys!

But when they matured and turned into ladybugs, I realized the pollinator garden had done its job. We had ladybugs at all stages feasting on the aphids in our trees. And while other trees in my city languished as a result of the aphid invasion, the cherry trees in Ben Nobleman Park Community Orchard bounced back quickly and produced a wonderful harvest that year.

Want to learn more about how to care for fruit trees? Healthier trees are more resilient when it comes to fruit tree pest and disease problems. Sign up for my online course Certificate in Fruit Tree Care and I’ll teach you how to care for fruit trees that thrive.

And if you want to give DIY insecticidal soap a try, use the recipe below. Enjoy your fruit trees!

Insecticidal Soap Spray for Fruit Trees

Use this spray to protect your fruit trees and other plants from aphids and other soft bodied insects including mealybugs, spider mites, and thrips.

Equipment

  • 1 Clean spray bottle for application
  • 1 Measuring cup or scale to measure ingredients
  • 1 Tablespoon

Materials

  • 1 tablespoon Liquid soap (castile soap is best)
  • 1 quart Distilled or filtered water (0.94 L)

Instructions

  • Fill the spray bottle with 1 quart (946 ml) ofwater.
  • Measure 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of liquid dishsoap.
  • Add the liquid dish soap to the spray bottle.
  • Close the spray bottle tightly and gently shake to mix the soap and water.

Application

  • Spray the insecticidal soap on one area of the plant only. Wait 24 hours. If there are no adverse effects (wilted or damaged leaves) it’s safe to use on the entire plant or tree.
  • Apply the soap spray in the early morning or late afternoon, when the plants are not in direct sunlight, as the soap can cause leaf burn in intense sunlight or high temperatures.
  • Spray the insecticidal soap on the insects themselves. Aphids often feed on the underside of leaves, so you will need to spray there too.
  • Reapply the insecticidal soap spray every 3 to 6 days or as needed until you get rid of the aphids (and other pests) on your fruit trees!

Notes

While insecticidal soap is generally considered safe for plants, it's important to monitor your plants closely after applying any new solution and discontinue use if you notice any adverse effects.

Susan Poizner

Director, OrchardPeople.com Fruit Tree Care Education Online

Susan Poizner is an urban orchardist in Toronto, Canada and the award-winning author of three fruit tree care books.  Susan trains new growers worldwide through her award-winning fruit tree care training program at Orchardpeople.com and is a former instructor of Fruit Production at Niagara College in Ontario. Susan is also the host of Orchard People, a monthly radio show and podcast, and Susan is an ISA Certified Arborist.

Susan Poizner and the cover of her eBook Grow Fruit Trees That Thrive

FRUIT TREE CARE NEWSLETTER

Sign up for our monthly newsletter and we will send you our eBook "Growing Fruit Trees That Thrive." You can unsubscribe at any time.
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