Sap-sucking pests

Cabbage aphids wreak havoc in the garden

TOXIC CONTROLS Cabbage aphids produce a mustard oil as a defense to predators like ladybugs and their larvae.
Aphids, or plant lice, are nearly always a problem in the garden. This is particularly true in winter, when it comes to cabbage aphids.

Cabbage aphids (Brevicoryne brassicae) can wipe out a cabbage crop before it ever gets started. Native to Europe, this pest of cole crops is now found throughout the United States.

Like other aphids, cabbage aphids are small, teardrop-shaped, sap-sucking pests that can reproduce at an alarming rate. While soft-bodied cabbage aphids are actually grayish-green, they look powdery blue to grayish-white because of a waxy covering. Cabbage aphids are not difficult to see, because they live in dense colonies that can cover stems, new leaves and entire plants practically overnight. In our moderate climate, these pests produce live offspring year-round.

Aphid defense

Cabbage aphids have an amazing defense mechanism. They produce an enzyme, in their head and throat muscles, which gets combined with defensive chemicals (glucosinolates) from their host plants, to create an explosive chemical reaction. This reaction produces mustard oil. Unfortunately, this “walking mustard oil bomb” defense is particularly effective against ladybug larva.

Vulnerable plants

Cabbage aphids feed on the youngest, most tender parts of new cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale and cauliflower. These pests also eat the innermost parts of cabbage and Brussels sprouts heads. Large colonies can stunt or even kill young plants. Heavy aphid feeding causes leaves to curl up, providing the pests with a protective cover.

Aphid controls

Prevention is key to cabbage aphid control. Row covers are an excellent way to protect young crops while they are getting established. Once aphids are seen, you can often use a strong spray from the garden hose to dislodge them. If that doesn’t work, insecticidal soaps can provide some control. Since some insecticidal soaps may be phytotoxic (meaning sunlight causes them to burn the plant), especially on cabbage and Brussels sprouts, it is a good idea to apply them on a foggy day.

Another way to make life more difficult for cabbage aphids is to remove any weeds in the mustard family from your property. Cabbage aphids can hide out in the mustard and then return to your garden plants. Pesticides can be used, as a last ditch effort, but aphids are developing resistance to these chemicals—a potentially dangerous spiral.

Another problem with using pesticides against cabbage aphids is that those same chemicals also kill beneficial, predatory insects, such as lady beetles, parasitic wasps and syrphid flies (hoverflies). These helpful insects are natural predators of caterpillars, imported cabbage worms, diamondback moths, loopers, and armyworms, which can cause other problems for your cole crops.

Monitor your plants every couple of days and be on the lookout for cabbage aphids!

Kate Russell is a UCCE Master Gardener in Santa Clara county. Learn more about garden pests at the South County Teaching and Demo Garden, at St. Louise Hospital, 9400 No Name Uno, in Gilroy. Classes are regularly offered to the public. Learn more at For more information, visit or call 408.282.3105 between 9:30am-12:30pm Monday through Friday.

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About Kate Russell
Kate Russell is a UCCE Master Gardener in Santa Clara county.