What are these white bugs I saw spawning in the woods?
March 17, 2015 8:20 PM   Subscribe

One July a few years back, my friend and I went camping in in the Catskills.

It was warm and we had a lot of rain that weekend, and between downpours, we walked along a trail by a lake. One tree (beech?) stood out from the green woods. It was starkly white. Gleaming, flagrantly bright against the blue-grey sky and deciduous neighbors.

We walked over to see.

The tree was — and there is a single word to describe it — teeming. It teemed. With teeny, tiny, white critters. It appeared to be juvenile insects and the effect was even weirder up close than it had been from down the path. They covered almost every square inch of this tree, writhing, seemingly having been all hatched in perfect concert roughly two seconds before we stumbled upon them, agog.

I have been camping at this place 15 times. It's not the deepest, darkest jungle, it's a pretty tame second or third growth forest. But that tree brought to mind nothing so much as being in the Amazon rainforest, with life swarming thickly on every conceivable surface. It was great luck that my pal is a photographer, and that he'd brought a nice camera and lens. (Great luck but also a curse. This was jaw-droppingly cool, but you know. It haunts my dreams.)

I've seen standard issue northeast bugs there. Mosquitoes, flies, spiders, gnats. There are young, mostly flat-leafed trees in the area, and it's near a stream and a lake. You can see part of the leaves in one of those pictures, I think it's birch or beech but maybe now. So, what creature what on god's green earth spawned that day in July?
posted by andromache to Science & Nature (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: If that first link doesnt work, here is the map of the area.
posted by andromache at 8:22 PM on March 17, 2015

Best answer: One likely possibility is wollly beech blight aphids. I like the link included here called "dancing aphids." I've seen them too, and yeah, their activity is somewhat disturbing.
posted by Miko at 8:29 PM on March 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Holy smokes Miko, you got it in one! You should see the grin on my face. Thank you. Going on four years, I've been wondering.

(Hive mind, please contribute your bug stories as you see fit.)
posted by andromache at 8:37 PM on March 17, 2015

Response by poster: From Miko's second link:

These odd creatures are beech aphids, Grylloprociphilus imbricator, sometimes called “beech blight aphids” (although they are not a fungal blight) or boogie-woogie aphids (although their left hand piano shuffle is not up to par). Their dance is a defensive warning: insects that amble into the colony will be jabbed by the piercing mouthparts of the older aphids...

Aphids feed by using their sharp mouthparts to sup on the sweet phloem sap of plants. This sugar-laden juice is poor in protein, so they have to process a lot of sap to get their dinner. The insects discard excess sugar, coating the leaves and ground below the colony with sticky “honeydew.” This makes the colony quite a hub of activity...

The colony is comprised entirely of clones.

posted by andromache at 8:45 PM on March 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh wow, thank you! I saw the same thing last year in Virginia, and had been wondering what they were. Now I know! Nature is awesome.
posted by gemmy at 9:16 PM on March 17, 2015

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