One afternoon while we were there, I took a familiar stroll with my parents and Niko down the gravel road that leads down a long hill to the Canadian Pacific railroad. The road and the railroad border the farm where I grew up, so I used to walk that way nearly every day, alone or with my cousins and our friends. We used to time our walks to coincide with the passing of a freight train. We’d wave to the engineer, who would wave back and sometimes give a couple of friendly hoots of the train’s whistle. Occasionally there would be a small boy (and one memorable time, a very hunky teenage boy) in the cab of the engine, and the little boy would lean out the window as he waved in his excitement at seeing friendly faces.
I was mildly disappointed that the train didn’t pass during our walk. I had wanted to share with Niko the experience of watching and feeling a huge train thunder by, as I’d shared with him the memory of lying in bed, listening to the comforting lullaby of a routine train whistle. He thought it was amazing that I used to wake up in the middle of the night if the train didn’t pass at its usual time. My story relieved his bedtime anxiety of the fearsome train roaring past, but I wanted to also share the exhilaration of the nearness to the giant metal beast. We didn’t get to see that this time, though.
However, we did find something fascinating. As we walked down an old road that runs parallel to the railroad, we paused periodically to look at items of interest — purple asters, dainty white asters (probably some sort of fleabane, quite possibly Lesser Daisy Fleabane), the seed heads of black-eyed Susans. Niko occupied himself harvesting flower seeds to “plant” later.
As we meandered along, I spied an odd, white, fuzzy growth on twigs of alders growing along the road. I waded through the brush beside the road to get a closer look. The growths were made up of rows of fuzzy bumps, each sprouting long hairs along its top. I’d never seen anything like it.
As I snapped pictures on my phone, my mother came over for a closer look. “They look like scale insects,” she said. I’d never heard of scale insects, and those motionless fluff balls didn’t look like any insects I’d ever seen. However, my mother is intelligent, well-read, and experienced in the realm of most things plant-related, so as soon as we got back to the house I started doing searches online to attempt to identify the weird, alien-looking hairy bumps.
It took my mother and I at least an hour to identify them. We started on the assumption that they were, in fact, some sort of scale insect, an assumption that made sense once I saw a few examples. But we didn’t find a scale insect that looked quite like our white hair balls.
I got a break when I read an article that mentioned the fact that aphids and scale insects were closely related. Aphids! I changed my search parameters and brought up images of hairy white aphids. Bingo! None of them were identical to our critters, but I felt I was getting closer.
I found an article on wooly apple aphids, with photos showing hairy white growths very similar — but not quite identical — to ours. Of course, ours weren’t on apple trees. It turns out, however, that these creatures often migrate between two species of tree, like apple and elm, or apples and alders. Alders! Aha! I thought, and did a search for wooly alder aphids. And there they were, in a very useful article from the University of Minnesota. They are, it turns out, overwintering on the twigs, and they’ll lay eggs that are clones of themselves. This generation is wingless; the next generation may have wings, and will migrate to a different tree, often alternating between alders and maples.
So there you have it. You learn something new every day, as my parents say — or at least you do if you keep your eyes open and maintain a little healthy curiosity. I doubt I’ll ever need this particular little piece of knowledge, but I enjoyed the discovery nonetheless.