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Wooly Aphid Adult

Lint Alert

"Blue Fuzzy-Butts" on the Wing

November 10, 2015  |  by Bryan Pfeiffer  |  24 comments  | 

Here in these naked woods of late autumn, as you kick the leaves and fret the onset of stick season, as warblers and butterflies are all but wistful memories, as you’ve forsaken the season of life in flight, here is your salvation, your lint alert: “Blue Fuzzy-Butts” are on the wing.

If you walk too fast in this late autumn warmth, you may overlook these tiny insects as the fuzz and fluff of the seeds that disperse on the winds. No, those tiny tufts of powder-blue lint aren’t even outcasts from the dryer cycle. They’re hearty autumn insects, the adult form of a woolly aphid species.

On my routine four-mile walk here in Montpelier, I found them drifting beside the North Branch of the Winooski River, floating in a clearing at Hubbard Park, and airborne downtown in front of Kellogg-Hubbard Library.

immature Woolly Aphids on Speckled Alder

We more often see these wingless aphids gathered in a mass on speckled alder, sucking liquids and covered with a waxy white coating resembling cotton or wool (like the photo here).

But now a particular stage of the adult (resembling pale blue lint) is on the wing — and on a mission of reproduction before winter.

But here’s the thing about aphids: they’ve got a crazy-varied-complicated life cycle. You can forget the fairy-tale story of boy meets girl for six-legged sex, with the female laying eggs that hatch into an immature stage, which undergoes some form of metamorphosis to become an adult. No way is that the case with aphids.

Aphids are iconoclasts. Although fuzzy females are now visiting plants and laying eggs that will overwinter like lots of other insects, there is nothing typical about what happens next spring. The aphid life cycles typically include eggs from which hatch only wingless females. They’re parthenogenetic, which means they don’t need males for reproduction. Oh, they’re also viviparous, which means these females bear live young rather than lay eggs (highly unusual among insects). Oh, and they also produce a kind of clone at some point in all this.

Anyway, this male-free reproduction goes on in various incarnations through the summer, until, at long last, some winged males turn up in the cycle and on the scene. At that point, the routine gets a bit more “traditional” — with egg laying, which is what’s happening now — but only until spring when the females emerge to carry on the cycle without any males.

By the way, my partner Ruth, who first showed me airborne woolly aphids, calls them “Blue Fuzzy-Butts.” But please do not confuse them with Fuzzy Butts Doggie Daycare and Grooming in Boothwyn, Pennsylvania, or the Fuzzy Butt Litter Box, which is “the most inexpensive, low odor, environmentally friendly, and easy cat box you’ll ever use.”

For more on all this — the aphids, that is — visit Charley Eiseman’s spectacular blog “Bug Tracks.”

24 comments
  1. Kristl says:

    Just saw my first one this morning when it landed on my sweater – in Portland, Oregon. Cute little buggers!

  2. Janelle says:

    Blue Fuzzy Butts…Perfect explanation. Thank you for this article. It helped us very much.

  3. Becky Martin says:

    I Googled “tiny blue insect with white fluff.” Happily, your site popped up. I had never seen this little critter before the other day as I was out walking the dog. Thank you for the information!

  4. Jeffrey J. Allen says:

    Funny, buddy Steve and I were eating lunch outside in Adamant on Monday when we spotted this little guys.
    “What are those”, he says. Say I? “Little Blue Fuzzy Butts”

  5. Michele says:

    Hi!

    This is so amazing! When I lived up in the foothills of the Laurentian’s, in Rawdon Quebec, we used to see clouds of these little guys in the late fall (often when we had a bit of first snow). Or even in the late spring (when we still had snow on the ground). We called them “Snow Flies” because they always seemed to appear “out of the snow”…

    It was always a cool (haha) event!
    Thanks for bring me back there and for the insect lesson!

    Cheers from Canada!
    Michele

  6. From Peterborough NH. says:

    this is a great discovery, Bryan Thanks. We had some hatches in Mad River Valley and Granville last week when I was up in Vermont.

  7. Wooly Alder Aphids are truly amazing. They are hatched on Silver Maples as winged insects that fly to alders to feed, and where they produce wingless clones of themselves (all females) while they feed on the alder sap. We often see these fuzzy clumps, the individuals covered with white waxy fluff extruded through their “skin.” As autumn nears, they will produce winged clones, including some males, that fly off to find Silver Maples and mates. The eggs are laid on the maples, to hatch in spring. While they’re feeding on alders, they are often protected by ants, which “milk” them for their honeydew and fiercely fight off any predators. One of their predators, the Lacewing larva, will infiltrate the clonal cluster, covering its own back with waxy fluff stolen from the aphids. Thus disguised, they will feed on the aphids undetected by the ants, just like the proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing. The aphids really do little damage to alders or maples and are truly delightful to observe.

  8. Sue Holmes says:

    I am wondering why I mostly see them after a freeze or Hard frost—then they seem to emerge on sunny days! Are they harmful in any way at any stage?

  9. Ann Cooper says:

    We’ve had swarms of them in Colorado this fall, but I didn’t manage a great p[hoto like the one you shared! Thanks

  10. Rita Pitkin says:

    Don’t remember noticing them befor, but this year I have seen a large “hatch” in Craftsbury and a smaller flock in Wolcott. ❤️ the name! Thanks.

  11. lindawurm says:

    The rest of the clan is fluffing about in western Maine! May I use Ruth’s name for them?Please?

  12. Love it, Brian, & love Ruth’s name for them!

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