Drunken Snowflakes, My In-Plain-Sight Obscurity

While attending the College of William and Mary, I ran trails in the woods of Williamsburg, Virginia and started noticing what I referred to as “galaxy fungus.” Black and gray white-speckled patches pervaded the woods, appearing at the bases of certain trees like miniature solar systems. Though I ultimately assumed it was a fungus, there were other possibilities. Maybe it was some sort of blight? A disease? On one particularly hot day I semi-deliriously mused that the patches were actually graffiti, their similarity to spray-paint so convincing. I’m ashamed of how long I went without pursuing the truth about my galaxy fungus, but I can justify the wait with the delight its mystery provided on long runs. When there wasn’t much else to think about, I could turn to the fungus. The more I thought about it, the more I noticed it. No one else I mentioned it to knew what it was. It was my in-plain-sight obscurity. In turn, I’ve become almost possessive of it. And now that I know exactly what it is, my possessiveness has only grown stronger—despite the fact that it’s actually very common in woods throughout the eastern United States.

beech aphid ground fungus
Sort of looks like something vomited the Milky Way, yes? (Photo credit: http://fieldbioinohio.blogspot.com/2012/01/aphids.html)

The “galaxy fungus” is indeed a fungus. Surprisingly enough, a random street artist did not take to the woods carrying aerosol paint cans with the intention of depicting celestial bodies awash in space. The story of my fungus is even better—it’s a love triangle.

Poor foot placement while trail running can mean tripping on a root and falling on your face (I speak from experience—lots of experience), so to inspect the galaxy fungus properly required a running break. One day, I finally stopped.

What I saw next totally blew my mind.

The branch directly above the fungus, right in front of my face, was covered in snow. Okay, so it wasn’t snow. It was even more bizarre than snow in July. The branch was entirely enveloped by fuzzy-looking white dots. They were alive. They were moving. They were shaking their tiny butts back and forth, long wooly-looking strands quivering on little tiny bodies.

Pause. If this sounds crazy that’s because I want it to. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. First a magical-looking fungus all over the woods and now these guys dancing above it? Was this real life? Later, I took to the Internet to research the black patches and white dancers. By rules of proximity, they had to be related. And they are.

Let’s break this down, starting with the white dots. These are beech blight aphids, small insects that dine on the sap of the American beech trees they populate. They live in dense colonies on a tree’s branches, causing little damage to the tree other than dieback on heavily infested branches. The beech blight aphid appears to “dance” when it is disturbed, engaging in a defensive behavior in which it raises and rocks its bottom from side to side. This behavior has earned it the moniker “boogie-woogie aphid.” Indeed, encountering a branch of beech blight aphids waggling their posterior ends does seem a bit like walking into a party of drunken snowflakes celebrating their newfound ability to avoid melting.

fagr3028
This seems like something I should have noticed sooner. (Photo credit: http://www.carolinanature.com/trees/fagr.html)

Aphids secrete honeydew, a sugary, sticky, and nutrient-depleted version of the tree sap they ingest. Honeydew rains from branches colonized by beech blight aphids, landing on the trunk and at the base of the tree. Here is where my galaxy fungus fits into this love triangle. Fungi colonize the honeydew excreted by the aphids, producing black sooty mold. The patches I’d seen for years at the base of American beech trees were black sooty mold, this fungus acting as the black void of space to house the star-like fallen aphids that led to its creation.

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