An afternoon hike to Ski Lake with a friend started a most interesting conversation about aphids. Yep. Aphids.

Those tiny (1/8th inch) soft-bodied, ova-shaped insects got us talking.

We first noticed that the stems of some of the wildflowers were coated with gobs of aphids. But on top of and around the slow-moving aphids were lots and lots of ants.

You see, ants will patrol and “farm” an aphid colony that is bunched up and sucking the juices out of plants.

Let me explain. Ants and aphids have a symbiotic relationship. Both species of the insects benefit from being together on the stems of those wildflowers.

The ants provide protection from any predators that might go after the aphids. The aphids, in return, provide food for the ants.

All aphids excrete a waste product called honeydew. Ants love this sticky stuff because it provides a sugary meal that gives the ants energy. You may have seen honeydew on your outdoor furniture where it drips off an aphid-infested tree.

However, the really amazing thing — at least to me — is the fact that some kinds of ants have evolved to “milk” the honeydew out of the aphids by stroking the little buggers abdomens. Wow.

But it is one thing to be wondering about aphids living off flowers in a mountain meadow and totally another to find them by the hundreds on your garden plants.

In my experience, peppers are plants that are extremely vulnerable to aphid attacks. Aphids — with their piercing mouthparts — will congregate on the tips of the pepper plants and slurp the plant’s sap from the new growth. That’s where the nutrients are concentrated.

I’ve also discovered seriously bad infestations on the lupine plants in my flower garden. Also lots of aphids on hops vines.

What aphids (and ants) lack in size they sure do make up for in numbers.

What to do:

A strong spray from a garden hose is one of the best solutions for cleaning out the aphids on garden plants.

When you dislodge the aphids you may not immediately kill them, but they will starve to death before they can make it back to the plants to do more damage.

Since aphids cluster on the undersides of leaves it is important to spray underneath the foliage as well as on top.

Spraying with a good shot of water will also rinse off a lot of the honeydew, which can attract an ugly black sooty mold.

If you feel really ambitious you can mix up a soapy solution — 1 teaspoon dish soap in a 32-ounce spray bottle — and blast the plants to alleviate any aphid crisis you may encounter.

And if you don’t mind something more powerful but toxic there are systemic poisons out there that will rid your plants of aphids. Just be sure not to spray them on anything that you are going to eat.

Gardening guru Marilyn Quinn shares her green thumb knowledge weekly in the spring and summer. Contact her by emailing columnists@jhnewsandguide.com.

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