Saturday, November 3, 2012

Fairies and Fuzz-Butts

Do you believe in fairies? 

I inhaled a couple as I walked down to the lake on a warm, damp afternoon not long ago. Tiny, fluffy, bluish-white wisps floated in the fading sunlight. Like a swarm of gnats, only slower and more ethereal, the air was filled with fairies. I didn’t gain any magical powers when one got caught up my nose, but my curiosity was piqued. 

My first encounter with these tiny creatures was while scooping up a pot of water for supper in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. My paddling partner, a more experienced USFS Wilderness Ranger, called the flying insects “fuzz-butts.” Who was I to argue? 

Years later on a hike I found whole colonies of similar beings, covered in white fuzz and clinging to alder branches like lint on your favorite pants. This flightless version had several ants tending them busily. Someone in the group produced a likely name: woolly alder aphids. 

Just like most aphids, woolly alder aphids suck plant juices from a host. The alder plant harvests sunlight, water, and air; the aphids harvest the alder’s sap; and then the ants harvest sugary honeydew secreted by the aphids. In return, ants provide the aphids some protection from predators. 

All the aphids in a colony are flightless female clones of their mother – until the days grow short. A single generation with females AND males occurs before winter, and the eggs from that generation will overwinter. Winged generations, like the flock of fairies I just saw, sometimes happen in response to food shortages. By flying to a new host before laying eggs, the parents give their offspring a fresh start. 

Both flighted and flightless aphids cover themselves in a white woolly covering made of wax, which makes an excellent defense against predation. Getting just a dab of it in my nose was enough to make me hold my breath when walking back through the flock of fairies! 

The feathery wax doesn’t seem to improve flying efficiency, though, and I caught several flying aphids on my fingers with quick sweeps through the air. The next challenge was getting the macro setting on my camera to focus on the tiny creatures. You can see my photos on the Museum’s Facebook page. They show much more detail that I could see with my naked eye! I love when photography can help us notice new things. 

Whether you believe in fairies or not, these tiny creatures sure add an air of mystery and beauty to any sunset by a lake. Let me know if you have seen them too! 

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