It started as little white furry spots on the potted plants in my office. First on the leaves, then the stalk and some on the soil. “How cute!” I thought to myself.  ” I’m growing little mushrooms!”. As more appeared, I delighted in them, even spraying water on them to help in the growth. This went on for a couple of weeks until I noticed the leaves of my plants becoming limp and dry, and which would literally drop off  when touched.

And that’s when I noticed also that my mushrooms could walk. This, they did with small little legs. I began to spend a lot of time standing by the window, under the harsh tropical sunlight studying the creatures. Small and almost minute, it was hard to see them properly so I headed off to the stationer’s to get a magnifying glass.

White and furry. I couldn’t make out their heads or tails. Turn them over and I’d see a reddish underside. Remove them from the plants and leave them on the table long enough and I’d see them start to scurry about, as if looking for the nearest plant.

“Those aren’t mushrooms,” A.H. the Account Manager said. “At least they don’t look like any mushroom I’ve seen before.”

I started to feel stupid and wondered where I got the idea that these were mushrooms in the first place. Funny how that idea came to me, and how it stuck around long enough for me to make a fool of myself telling my co-workers that I was growing some cute mushroom species.

“I was only joking. I meant they looked like mushrooms in the beginning. They only look like it,” I explained, trying to look like I was the knowledgeable gardener that I clearly wasn’t. I could see A.H.’s facial expression, as she thought to herself, “I’ve never heard a mushroom joke before.”

So ok. Turns out my mushrooms are aphids. That was according to my colleague whom I shall call “Mike” for the sake of brevity. Aphids. Aphids. Let’s see what aphids are. I googled it and on Wikipedia this is what confronted me:

Aphids, also known as plant lice (and in Britain as greenflies), are small plant-eating insects, and members of the superfamily Aphidoidea. Aphids are among the most destructive insect pests on Earth.

“Most destructive insect pests on earth!?”

“Yep. They’re the ants’ dairy cows,” Mike informed me over morning coffee at LY’s.

LY is an old cafe where I have my morning coffee breaks and sometimes breakfast. In my town, owing to its long establishment, it’s almost an ‘institution’. Everyone I know has been there before and the proprietors – a man, his wife and his sister – know everyone and have a habit of saying, “I’ve seen you when you were this small” and with obvious good reason too since LY’s been operating since the 60s, I think.

“Ants rear aphids. They carry them to the plants. The aphids feed on the plants and produces honeydew – a type of secretion on their backs which the ants like. Kinda symbiotic, ants feed off this sweet liquid and in return protect the aphids from their predators.”

Sounds so peaceful, doesn’t it? I’d just about started to think that if Man could live like this, we’d have no conflicts in this world when further reading on Wikipedia showed me this:

Aphids passively feed on sap of phloem vessels in plants, as do many of their fellow members of Hemiptera such as scale insects and cicadas. Once a phloem vessel is punctured, the sap, which is under high pressure, is forced into the aphid’s food canal. As they feed, aphids often transmit plant viruses to the plants, such as to potatoes, cereals, sugarbeets and citrus plants. These viruses can sometimes kill the plants.

Plants contain low densities of the nitrogen compounds needed for building proteins. This requires aphids to consume an excess of sap to satisfy their nutritional requirements. The excess is expelled as “honeydew”, out of the anuses of aphids, in such large volumes that in sometimes it can “fall like rain”. Aphid honeydew is rich in carbohydrates, like the phloem it derives from.

Viruses? Anuses? These creatures are like bloody ecologically destructive timber loggers!

Stressed out, I tried flicking the little pests off my plants using the tip of a pencil, sometimes squishing them on the spot. But the ants kept coming back with more aphids and there was no way that I was going to stand there all day in the office waiting for them. Because I had my pots on the window sill, it was easy for the ants to come in from the outside. My dream of having some greenery in my office was fast turning into a nightmarish scene of flora and fauna gone horribly wrong complete with fat aphids sucking the life out of anything with chlorophyll.

The pencil was at best a stop gap measure. I had to figure out a solution quickly. Ridsect didn’t work. I tried spraying that on plants just a few months ago to rid them of ants but ended up getting rid of dead plants instead. Dead plants with live ants swarming all over them, to be exact. So, I turned to the internet and with some reading here and there, came home one day with a list of ingredients for concocting my own homemade organic pesticide. 1 litre of water, some hand liquid detergent, a bit of vegetable oil and 3 cloves of garlic. A stinking concoction to be sure!

“You know, when a new ant queen leaves the nest to start a new colony, it’ll take along with it aphid eggs,” Mike said. “So it can start a new farm too.”

“That sounds disgusting,” I replied, sipping LY’s famous thick black coffee with sweetened condensed milk; just a teaspoonful to temper the bitter coffee – just the way I like it, and perfectly mixed to my personal taste. 3 years of daily patronage here for my morning coffees earned me the right to sit at the long table in LY, a table I like to think of as exclusive seeing as only LY’s ‘special’ customers sit there – like the old man with the er-hu (Chinese classical violin), or the fat woman who drinks 5 cans of Stella Artois on her own every morning, to name a few. LY’s resident barista, will always come and sit with whoever is seated at the table though he won’t make any small talk, or talk at all. He’ll just sit there quietly, looking at you and you can look back at him. And then one of you will turn to look away because of the discomfort. If you’re reading newspapers, he’ll sit opposite you and try to read what you’re reading. That in turn gives you guilt for turning the pages too quickly, making you wonder if he’s done with that page everytime you think about turning it. So you end up reading more slowly, trying to guess which column he’s reading and whether he is finished. But still, it is a coveted table, a status symbol – you sit there and all and sundry will know you’re on the Proprietors’ List, much like academia’s Dean’s List.

“Just imagine the ants drinking liquid secreted from the back of that furry creature. That’s revolting,” I continued.

“And we don’t? Isn’t it the same with cows?”, Mike asked.

“You’re going off topic,” I said, smarting.

Back in the office, I initiated my fight-back plan and sprayed the stinking concoction on the plants. There were no aphids of course by then – thanks to the pencil. But the ants were still around. Like shepherds roaming the hills looking for their lost cattle. I hope they get the message that grazing pastures my plants certainly are not!

Spray I did, and cough I did more – the garlicky mist floated everywhere in my room, infusing my clothes and making everyone think I’d been consuming a garlic-rich diet. I resorted to opening all windows to try to rid the room of the stink but it was slow to dissipate. So for now, the following have stayed clear of the plants – the ants, aphids .. and me.

I stand a few feet from the stinking leaves each day, staring at the leaves – looking for signs of their return. So far so good.

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