Tuesday, October 30, 2012

That Fuzzy White Stuff: Woolly Alder Aphids

When raking leaves, putting away patio furniture and dealing with other outdoor chores that should be done before winter sets in, an observant individual may notice small, fuzzy, bluish-white insects slowly drifting through the air.

Upon close examination, these gnat-like bugs have an abdomen covered with a mass of tiny, curly, white fibers and a thorax that is a light iridescent blue-green, especially near the base of their transparent wings. These tomato seed-sized invertebrates are known as woolly aphids, and although they are active from mid-spring through October, it is only after the leaves have fallen and they take to the air that they become marginally visible to anyone that spends time outside.

The woolly alder aphid is probably the most abundant member of this group in the Adirondacks. As its name implies, this sucking insect depends on alder, an exceptionally common shrub in wetlands throughout the Park, for its food during the summer and the early days of autumn. Like any aphid, this bug gets its nourishment by piercing the outer layers of tissue in certain spots, and then tapping into the flow of sap that exists beneath the surface. Because sap contains sugars formed during photosynthesis, an aphid primarily acquires these sweet-tasting carbohydrates rather than a variety of nutrients as it siphons the sap from a plant.

However, in order for an aphid to develop cellular tissue of its own and form the many embryos that an adult is programmed to produce during the course of a season, protein is needed. Enough of these nitrogen-based compounds can be collected by an aphid if it processes a high enough volume of sap. Since an aphid is unable to oxidize all of the sugars that are extracted from the sap, and because its body does not store excess carbohydrates in the form of fat, the unused sugars are eliminated from its body in droplets known as “honeydew”. (Duplicating the aphid’s ability to discard excess sugar from the body rather than transforming it into fat in a human would be the ultimate dream of any dietary scientist.)

Many types of ants have evolved the ability to locate colonies of aphids for this sugary residue. Biologists have observed ants vigorously protecting clusters of aphids from larger insect predators, as ants rely on the residue of aphids as an important food source.

Unlike most insects, and other forms of life, aphids reproduce mainly by asexual means. Once a female aphid finds a spot on a plant where she is able to extract adequate amounts of sap, she begins to bear offspring without first breeding with a male. In this way, the aphids produced are genetically identical to the sole parent, or are clones of their mother.

Additionally, during this stage of its life, the woolly alder aphid does not lay eggs; rather the female bears live nymphs that tap into the same location on the alder and quickly develop into adults. Within a few weeks, the offspring are reproducing nymphs of their own and add more tiny clones to the expanding colony.

During the final days of summer, the amount of sap in the shrub begins to dwindle, triggering a change in the reproductive behavior of the aphids. Males are formed during this period of time, and wings develop on the body of the maturing adults which provide these normally flightless bugs with the ability to abandon their colony.

After mating, the female aphid attempts to travel to a red or silver maple in which to deposit an egg. It is beneath a crack or crevice in the bark of this tree that the egg passes the long winter. When spring arrives and as soon as the sap begins to flow, the egg hatches and a nymph emerges to take advantage of the maple’s rich source of nutrients.

After another generation of winged adults is produced, these tiny bugs take to the air once again and migrate back to a wetland in their search for an alder. Since the rate of sap flow and nutrient composition differs in these two woody plants during the course of the year, this aphid changes its host in order to better serve its needs.

The aphids form a complex group of sucking insects that rarely do any serious harm to trees or shrubs like alder because of their large size. Small house plants are another story, as these are attacked by other species of aphids that can inflict more pronounced damage to a smaller host.

The woolly alder aphid is just one of many species, however it is the one that is likely to be encountered at this time of year while outdoors here in the Adirondacks.

Whooly aphid illustration by Adelaide Tyrol (Courtesy Northern Woodlands Magazine).

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Tom Kalinowski

Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

7 Responses

  1. Dick Carlson Richard Carlson says:

    Thanks, I finally now know just what these little white fliers are!

  2. Cris Winters says:

    Great article, Tom. I’ve been walking around for a couple of weeks wondering about those little guys that looked like snow flakes or ash particles that filled the air one afternoon at Paul Smith’s College campus. Alders abound out there!

  3. Carrie White says:

    I thought these were the Balsam Woolly Adelgid or Hemlock
    Woolly Adelgid…can you explain how you know these are Alder Aphids when in flight? Is it the color? Thanks for the info.

  4. Tom Kalinowski Tom Kalinowski says:

    Good Evening Carrie and thanks for reading the Almanack.
    I believe that the woolly aphids develop wings during the autumn, and the woolly adelgids do not. I have read that the main means of dispersal employed by the woolly adelgids is their ability to simply float on air current a short distance to a nearby hemlock, or balsam,(depending on the species) and remain there for the rest of their life. They do not migrate during the autumn as do the woolly alder aphids. So it is not color, but the ability to fly that separates the members of these two groups of bugs. I would welcome anyones insight into this question, if they have additional information, or if they have noted errors with this response, as my background in this field is rather limited.

  5. Brian says:

    I agree Tom….winged adults of Prociphilus tessellatus are what we’re seeing in the fall: http://bugguide.net/node/view/157195

  6. […] As fall approaches, these aphids produce winged forms. They fly off to red or silver maple trees where they lay eggs. The nymphs feed on maple sap and eventually produce a winged generation that flies off in search of an alder. More on their life cycle at The Adirondack Almanack. […]

  7. Nancy says:

    Thanks for this great read of information. This is the first year I have noticed these white fuzzy little bugs. Me and my 6yr old daughter have been searching the web to find out what they were. Defininately not a mealy bug like some suggest. We live in VA and they have just appeared a few days ago. I can tell some are very very tiny like half size the other tiny ones lol. So, I am going to assume that is offspring 🙂

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