Spotted aphids – clover or alfalfa?

In Australia, Therioaphis trifolli refers to two genetically distinct, host specific aphids, the spotted alfalfa aphid and spotted clover aphid.

Therioaphis trifolli is a distinct looking aphid species.

Pale yellow-green in colour and about 2 mm long as adults, they have 4 to 6 rows of tiny black spots running lengthwise on their backs, which are just visible to the naked eye.

The aphid is a pest of legume pastures, and a vector of some plant viruses including Alfalfa mosaic virus (AMV) in medic and lucerne pastures, and Bean yellow mosaic virus (BYMV) in clover.

But did you know that this species has two forms in Australia that are largely host specific?

These are commonly known as the spotted alfafa aphid and the spotted clover aphid.

Spotted alfalfa aphid in Australia

Spotted alfalfa aphid was first detected in Australia in the late 1970s and heavily disrupted the lucerne-growing industry.

At the time, the most commonly grown variety (cv. Hunter valley) was susceptible to attack by the aphid, and insecticides were heavily relied upon for control.

The result of this was the evolution of varying levels of resistance to insecticides, primarily pirimicarb, but also dimethoate, omethoate and other older chemistries.

Fortunately, these resistance issues largely appear to be a relic of the past with the introduction of spotted alfalfa aphid-resistant lucerne varieties and use of other integrated pest management strategies.

Enter spotted clover aphid

It was thought that Therioaphis trifolli was restricted to lucerne and some medics until large populations were found thriving on subclover in the 1990s.

The aphid infesting subclover was not morphologically different from spotted alfalfa aphid, however subsequent research revealed it was genetically distinct biotype, and therefore was given the common name of spotted clover aphid.

Therioaphis trifolli and insecticide resistance today

Today, most lucerne varieties have some form of resistance against spotted alfalfa aphid. This has reduced the reliance on chemical controls for spotted alfalfa aphid, thereby reducing insecticide resistance selection pressures.

Nevertheless, spotted alfalfa aphid is still exposed to insecticides in lucerne and medics when growers are seeking to target other pest species. This may be why the current pirimicarb label warns of insecticide tolerance in some spotted alfalfa aphid populations.

There is much less known about the spotted clover aphid than spotted alfalfa aphid.

There does not appear to be any insecticide resistance in spotted clover aphid; its preference for clover pasture (as opposed to lucerne and medics) likely means that it hasn’t experienced the same insecticide selection pressure as spotted alfalfa aphid, and therefore historically hasn’t followed the same resistance trajectory.

Are you seeking further information? Visit our comprehensive spotted alfalfa aphid PestNote.


Thanks to Dr Peter Ridland (The University of Melbourne) and Dr Garry McDonald (cesar) for their assistance.

Field observations

Cody Stewart – IK Caldwell (Northern Country)

Cover image: Photo by Andrew Weeks, Cesar Australia

What is Pestfacts south-eastern?

PestFacts south-eastern keeps growers and advisers informed about invertebrate pests and beneficials in broadacre crops and pastures during the winter-cropping season in Victoria and southern New South Wales.


Never miss a beat. Get articles, advice and more straight in your inbox.

Since 2019 PestFacts south-eastern has been running through IPMforGrains: Best Practice Insect Pest Management, a project delivered by the National Pest Information Network (Cesar Australia, DPIRD, QDAF, NSW DPI, and SARDI). This project aims to provide grain growers and advisors with information on invertebrate grain pest occurrence and equip industry with the knowledge needed to implement integrated pest management practices. This initiative is a GRDC investment and includes in-kind contributions from all project partner organisations.

The online PestFacts south-eastern collection also includes a selection of articles published between 2015 – 2018 when the service was run through a previous GRDC investment, The National Pest Information Service.

PestFacts south-eastern is supported by