Chemical Ecology and Sociality in Aphids: Opportunities and Directions

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Peer-Reviewed Article

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Aphids have long been recognized as good phytochemists. They are small sap-feeding plant herbivores with complex life cycles that can involve cyclical parthenogenesis and seasonal host plant alternation, and most are plant specialists. Aphids have distinctive traits for identifying and exploiting their host plants, including the expression of polyphenisms, a form of discrete phenotypic plasticity characteristic of insects, but taken to extreme in aphids. In a relatively small number of species, a social polyphenism occurs, involving sub-adult "soldiers" that are behaviorally or morphologically specialized to defend their nestmates from predators. Soldiers are sterile in many species, constituting a form of eusociality and reproductive division of labor that bears striking resemblances with other social insects. Despite a wealth of knowledge about the chemical ecology of non-social aphids and their phytophagous lifestyles, the molecular and chemoecological mechanisms involved in social polyphenisms in aphids are poorly understood. We provide a brief primer on aspects of aphid life cycles and chemical ecology for the non-specialists, and an overview of the social biology of aphids, with special attention to chemoecological perspectives. We discuss some of our own efforts to characterize how host plant chemistry may shape social traits in aphids. As good phytochemists, social aphids provide a bridge between the study of insect social evolution sociality, and the chemical ecology of plant-insect interactions. Aphids provide many promising opportunities for the study of sociality in insects, and to understand both the convergent and novel traits that characterize complex sociality on plants.


This article was written when Sarah P. Lawson was affiliated with the University of New Hampshire.



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