Wooly Aphids

2009 October 3

They may be furry, but they’re no tribbles

OK, last week’s naked green aphids may not have been cute. And yet, the tribble[1], a creature that also reproduces so fast that they are born pregnant and would also be serious agricultural pests, are widely considered cute. So, what has a tribble got that an aphid hasn’t got? Well, they are the size of small cats, they are furry, and they purr. So, what if we get an aphid with fur? Would that be cute? As it happens, Michelle sent me some pictures of wooly aphids[2] a while back, so we can at least see what fur does for them:
wooly aphids.closecluster.cropped

That’s not a single tribble aphid, it is a mass of them. The masses can cover entire branches pretty well:

wooly aphids.mass.lowres

It is occasionally possible to make out individuals, because some of them are less wooly than others:

wooly aphids.individuals

The “wool” isn’t hair, exactly. It is filaments of wax that the aphids exude for multiple reasons: the wax shields them from predators, it keeps them from drying out, and it may even help keep them warm in mildly frosty conditions.

There are several distinct genera of aphids that are wooly like this. I think these are likely to be Wooly Alder Aphids Paraporciphilus tessellatus, because the tree that they were on looks like it might be either an alder or a maple, and not so much like an apple, elm, or evergreen tree:

wooly aphids.host-tree.lowres

But, I could easily be wrong about the tree, in which case they could be Wooly Apple Aphids, Eriosoma lanigerum, or maybe Beech Blight Aphids, Grylloprociphilus imbricator, or maybe some other type. The wool does make it pretty difficult to tell one kind from another. For that matter, non-aphids like Wooly Adelgids and some Mealybugs can have very similar wax filaments.

Aside from the wool, wooly aphids have pretty much the same lifestyle as other aphids. Their winged form hatches out of eggs in the spring, then they fly to an appropriate hostplant and start churning out the offspring parthenogenically. Then in the fall, they start producing winged males and females, which mate and produce eggs that overwinter. An interesting quirk is that female aphids can produce male offspring parthenogenically, which is quite a trick when you think about it.

So, what do you think? Is the hair enough to make them cute, or do they need to be cat-sized and purr, too?

[1] Tribbles are also fictitious, which probably makes it easier for them to be cute.

[2] While Michelle didn’t actually take these pictures in Michigan, I have seen similar aphids around from time to time[3], so I’ll go ahead with these. I’ve also been seeing the winged form flying around, they are little blue things with this tuft of white fur on the back. Unfortunately, I never see them when I (a) have a camera along, or (b) have any way to catch one and take it home without crushing it.

[3] Note added some years later: in fact, here are some that we found on one of our own alder bushes in 2011, being tended by ants.

5 Responses
  1. October 5, 2009

    I think there’s a species of scale that is similarly “wooly.” The little swine attacked an indoor fiddle leaf fig at my old house. The only way I could control them was by using rubbing alchohol and a cloth. The systemic poisons were worthless.

    Got it – it was cottony scale.

  2. October 6, 2009

    You know, it occurs to me that the wax filaments from the various plant-sucking aphid-like pests might actually have economic value if they were intentionally cultivated. It would probably have properties similar to beeswax, which a cursory look around shows to be selling for around a dollar an ounce. I wonder if (a) it would be practical to collect it efficiently enough to process and sell, and (b) whether anybody would buy it? It might need a pretty extensive media campaign to convince people that “aphidwax” is equal or superior to beeswax, but maybe it could be done.

  3. Ellen permalink
    October 7, 2009

    Maybe you could call it WoollyWax?

    I remember when I first encountered these blue-ish flying fuzzballs, drifting about the autumn air. It took me three years to finally track down what they were, and now it seems like information about them is everywhere!

    Nature never ceases to fascinate.

  4. October 12, 2009

    I’ve got two words for you: AphidWax Chapstick.

  5. PigachuThePorkemon permalink
    December 10, 2015

    Also, just like tribbles, aphids reproduce asexually and are born pregnant. Which means one single female can beget up to 20 offspring a day, which at a week old take after their mother and churn out dozens of babies themselves. In a month’s time, one single aphid can become thousands!

Comments are closed.