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A state-of-the-art camera with high frame rates and high resolution has shown the flight dynamics of two aphid species in unmatched detail for the first time. 

The take-off and free flight of Drepanosiphum platanoidis and Myzus persicae, both common crop pests, were studied in still air using ultra slow-motion, high-speed photography in high definition (HD). The wing tip and body posture were tracked to show how they are displaced during each wingbeat cycle. 

The unique footage shows that aphids demonstrate a high degree of flight control and manoeuvrability in the lab, occasionally using forward and inverted flight, two aerial modes that are otherwise poorly known. 

The new Rothamsted camera, funded by BBSRC, is operated by the team at the National Insect Survey. The ultra slow-motion videos will enable researchers to learn more about the biomechanics and physical mechanisms which aphids use to fly, much of which was previously unknown despite being crucial to understanding their migratory behaviour.

“Aphids are as beautiful and as graceful in flight as their colourful distant cousins, the butterflies."

Professor James Bell, who until recently was head of the Rothamsted Insect Survey and is now at Keele University, led the research and said: “Aphids are as beautiful and as graceful in flight as their colourful distant cousins, the butterflies. But, if we are to make progress in improving food security, major challenges must be overcome to protect our crops. In particular, to inform the risk of virus transmission, we need to build on this research to understand the energetic cost of flight for aphids over short and long distances.” 

Aphid thumb
Click on image for video of Aphid taking flight

Aphids often don’t affect plants directly by their feeding behaviour. Instead, the damage is indirectly caused by viruses that are transmitted by the aphids during feeding. These can stunt growth, yellow leaves and thus reduce yields. Some species of aphids are also known to excrete honeydew, a sticky, sugary substance that can attract other insects and promote the growth of mould. Often, we only become aware of this after our parked car succumbs to the sticky rain of honeydew that falls from the tree canopy above.

It’s been estimated that crop losses caused by aphids could be as high as £190 million every year, and although methods to control their populations already exist, these often involve killing the aphids off, depriving birds and other species of an important food resource. 

Researchers are therefore studying new methods of managing these pests that do not involve lethal force such as pesticides, and by studying the movements and mechanisms involved in helping these insects to fly, scientists believe they could use footage like this to better identify which insects are carrying disease or viruses and deploy control strategies accordingly to manage them. 


James Clarke

Director of Communications and Engagement


Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries in areas as diverse as crop management, statistical interpretation and soil health. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative approach to developing innovative farm practice.
Through independent research, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally, with economic impact estimated to exceed £3 bn in annual contribution to the UK economy. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and multiple partnerships.
Rothamsted is home to three unique National Bioscience Research Infrastructures which are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests to push back the frontiers of biology and deliver a healthy, prosperous and sustainable future. Through our investments, we build and support a vibrant, dynamic and inclusive community which delivers ground-breaking discoveries and develops bio-based solutions that contribute to tackling global challenges, such as sustainable food production, climate change, and healthy ageing.
As part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), we not only play a pivotal role in fostering connections that enable the UK’s world-class research and innovation system to flourish – we also have a responsibility to enable the creation of a research culture that is diverse, resilient, and engaged.
BBSRC proudly forges interdisciplinary collaborations where excellent bioscience has a fundamental role. We pioneer approaches that enhance the equality, diversity, and inclusion of talent by investing in people, infrastructure, technologies, and partnerships on a global scale.


The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.