"Blue Fuzzy-Butts" on the Wing
6 October 2021: As you’ll see in comments below, the Lint Alert reports are coming in strong this autumn from across the continent. Although they can sometimes swarm and passively annoy us, or be pests on agricultural crops, woolly aphids do not bite humans. Reports otherwise in comments below most likely relate to some other insect.
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.
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.”