Without any males on the scene, these tiny insects give birth to generations of all-female offspring. Until autumn, when they also produce males — a remarkable case of female reproductive autonomy.
This is alluded to indirectly in your essay, but a major advantage of parthenogenetic production of females is that it more or less doubles the population growth rate. Only females can contribute to the future population because only females can produce more aphids. Males are a waste in this context. Because aphids are everybody's favorite lunch, this extreme population growth rate, in effect, outruns mortality by predation (think aphid lions, parasitic wasps, ants, fly larvae, etc).
I don't know if woolly aphids do this, but in some aphid species, crowding induces the development of wings in some of the parthenogenetic offspring. These winged females then fly off to found new colonies.
As you showed for woolly aphids, aphids in general are really fantastic creatures, unendingly interesting and surprising.
Wow. Love this essay, Bryan.
Is there any chance the zygotes (or whatever aphids have that are zygote-esque) change gender very early in this process,?
I adore this essay. You have such a gift for making science and life in general both fascinating and discernible. The first time I ever saw these in large numbers was the first Covid year when I took the dog for her evening walk. They came up as a topic of "WTF are these?" during my recent Master Naturalist course, at which point I was introduced to them as "you mean those tiny little insects with blue tutus?" So now they're also Tiny Tutu Bugs in my neighborhood. Assuming they're the same beings. (The only thing I regret from that course is the implantation of the ever-present question "But is that a TRUE BUG?")
Unrelated: I seeded milkweed two weeks ago! Spent a day clearing thistles and quack grass out from all along the raspberry bed and put them in there. The sunflowers did well there this year, so I have hopes. 🤞🧡🌻(why no milkweed emoji?)
Mind blown, thank you!
Bryan, maybe I’m missing something obvious, but if only females hatch in the spring, and they only produce more females, where the males that mate with the females in the fall come from?
Inspirational. Thank you. You explain well how important it is to appreciate the small things.
Taking the matriarchy to a whole new level! 💙
I learn so much from you, Bryan. Thanks for doing the research and putting it all together. You be the best!!
Thank you Bryan. I have seen the airborne fuzzballs, grabbed a few to view closely. What an interesting and enlightening story! One more reason to appreciate the wonder and diverse lives of insects that live around us.
Thankful to learn all this - I'm often speechless at the beauty of it. Grateful for your sharing.
Outstanding to read. We had these in our yard in Seattle and I wondered about them. Of course, way more interesting than one would think at first glance. Thanks. David
This is...wonderfully weird.
Yes, I am hooked
A fantastic article--thanks Bryan! I had no idea that the fuzzy blue-butts were flying aphids. I knew a little bit about aphid reproduction from Oleander Aphids--I've spent a lot of time with milkweed--which have similar reproductive cycles. I remember reading that once one generation is born the next is generation gets birthed almost simultaneously. It all happens so fast. Each generation has the next generation already formed in their bodies. Wild stuff these aphids. Thanks again!
Find them all over my Tuscan kale, which bums me out every year. I have a new found respect. If you have tips for reducing their infestation on kale, I would love them.
Wow, amazing. Thank you for writing this!