Probably the last thing I should have been looking for among the giant hemlocks of Hartwick Pines State Park were small things on the forest floor, but I was getting a neck ache. Looking down wasn’t just a relief; it was like bowing in a sacred place. Scattered shafts of sunlight illuminated patches of the forest floor like so many spotlights. One such brightened location contained a small beech tree. Like many of the underling trees with no hope of ever attaining the stature of the surrounding giants, this little beech looked weak and sparse. It stood out – glowed as a matter of fact – not due to a shaft of light but due to a startling coat of white fuzz covering the bark.
At first the coating looked like fungus, but it started to move as I stepped closer. There was no wind. The movement was generated by the fuzz itself. More properly, the fuzz was being moved by the swaying motion of the thousands of insects beneath it. Apparently they were attempting to scare me off but the effect was more mysterious and intriguing rather than frightening. It was like witnessing a mass of fairy dancers.
These swaying sprites were Beech Blight Aphids. The name is a bit unfair, however. Sure they are aphids, sucking insects of the Hemipteran order which specialize in Beech trees, but their collective actions rarely influence the health of their host tree. Occasionally an unsightly fungus can sprout from the sticky honeydew generated by an especially large colony but even that is not especially beech-threatening. Some of the less technical names such as Don King Bugs or Flying Mice are much more appealing and fitting (some generations develop wings and can fly – thus the second name). Hopefully I don’t have to explain the Don King reference.
The Don King fuzz covering these peculiar woolly aphids is a waxy creation produced by the insects themselves. They could be compared to wax flowers. In fact, the closest floral resemblance is to the crooked bloom of the autumn-blooming Witch Hazel. As you can see in the photos, it issues out of the abdomen and is held over the arched back like a parasol.
A countless bunch of arched ends sporting a countless bunch of wax blooms acts as a fine predator deterrent. The swaying thing adds to the “in your face” effect and probably increases the protective coverage as well. As a dance, the movement is a mechanical pumping more like a cheerleading move: “Give me an “S”, give me an “O”, give me a “B”- that’s S.O.B. – Sisters of the Beech” (what did you think? Sons of a Beech? – most aphids are females). See the Swaying aphids here
The wax plumes are delicate and turn into a fine powder when touched. Many of the insects also had a drop of sticky brown honeydew coming out of their hind end, so any attempt to disturb the bunch resulted in a micro-form of tar and feathering.
Beech Blight Aphids express themselves in September and October. In spite of their white woolly coating they will not overwinter in this state. By the time a dense layer of icy hoar frost replaces the living autumn frost on this tiny beech tree, the next generation of aphids will be nicely tucked away into the bark as eggs – the seeds of next year’s fairy dancers.
You probably noted that within these few paragraphs I managed to compare these creatures to fairies, fungi, boxing promoters, cheerleaders, Witch Hazel flowers, and frost. I do believe that is a personal metaphorical record. Hey, maybe it was the fairy dust!