Northland Nature: Woolly aphids are easily mistaken for fungiLate October in the Northland is a remarkable time. The leaf drop earlier in the month has changed the landscape.
Late October in the Northland is a remarkable time. The leaf drop earlier in the month has changed the landscape. And, for the next seven months, we will be viewing the trees without their green foliage. At mid-month, the tamaracks, with a yellow-gold glow from the swamps, provided a finale to the colorful exit of the deciduous trees. Now we look out, and into, open woods.
AutWin, the time between the leaf drop and the snow cover, is upon us. This amazing time is like a season of its own, unlike any other time of the year.
It is now that we see all the other greens of the forest. Mosses draping trunks, stumps, logs and rocks continue to sport their green attire — we see just how common they are. Unlike other ferns, wood ferns and rock cap ferns also remain in their summer colors. And clubmosses (cousins of ferns, not mosses) carpet the forest floor. These miniature evergreens also tell us of an unexpected abundance. But there is more.
While walking here at this time, I also notice the fungi, in the form of tough shelves, sticking out from trees. I also notice jellies and puffballs.
And then there’s that white stuff that looks like a fungus growth on alders.
Alders are small trees, very common in the North Country, mostly found in the wetlands. Like other deciduous trees, these small woody plants dropped their leaves a few weeks ago; unlike most, however, they did so without a colorful fanfare.
Leaves were green and on branches one day, and on the ground the next.
When defoliated, the branches reveal happenings that were covered during the warm season. With many trees, hidden findings are nests of birds, squirrels or hornets. But, for some alders, a “long white growth” appears on the bare branches. This white pattern sure looks like a fungus growth. Closer inspection reveals numerous white strands projecting from a dark surface. They are easy to mistake for a fungus, but, as I watch carefully, I see some movement. And I see that at the bases of the white strands are a good number of dark bodies.
This is a colony of insects — aphids, not fungi.
Known as woolly aphids (pictured), the colonies began in summer and settled into this site to feed on sap from the alder. With all the leaves gone, we can now see them. Anyone doing gardening is well aware of aphids, and seeing these tiny insects lined up on stems of late-summer plants in not unusual.
I have frequently watched their antics and movements on goldenrods during the warm days of August. Often ants stand by to guard them. Ants protect these insect colonies that, in return, will provide their guardians with a sweet-tasting liquid (known as “honey dew”). Green, purple or dark, aphid groups fade in the cold.
But the woolly aphids continue into the fall. Perhaps their white coats that make them look like a fungus and so protect them will also help to keep these insects warmer. I’m not the only one to have discovered this late-season aphid colony and, as I observe them, I see that they too are protected by ants.
With other aphids gone, these white woollies are still producing honey dew. And ants still want this sweetness in these chilly days.
AutWin may linger for a few more weeks, and I suspect that the alder will continue to host these white aphids until they drop to the ground for the winter — beneath the blanket of snow that is sure to come.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books that are available now, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o firstname.lastname@example.org.