By the time Martin DuPain returned home from a short walk Thursday afternoon, he was covered in a handful of tiny flying creatures. They were in his hair, on his shirt and in his nose.
When he sneezed, the bugs flew out.
As if the smoke and mist sweep from forest fires in Canada was not enough, the city of New York has been invaded in recent days by plumes of flying insects which have become both a nuisance and a source of fascination – who were they, where did they come from and will disappear – they one day? Another unwanted Canadian export?
At first, DuPain, who lives in Queens, thought it might be windblown ash, but he soon discovered otherwise. Some were alive and flying. He quickly jumped into the shower.
The startling scene was nothing short of a “natural disaster”, joked a post on Twitter, which has been abuzz with reports of swarms in some neighborhoods, while others remain bug-free.
As they entered clouds of insects, some people tried to chase them away. Others covered their mouths and noses. Others put on surgical masks before venturing outside.
Professor David Lohman, an entomologist at the City University of New York, hadn’t seen any of the insects himself, but concluded from photos and videos circulating on social media that they were winged aphids – and not midges, as amateur bugologists supposed.
Aphids are common all over the United States, even in New York. They are small, pear-shaped insects that come in a variety of colors, from green, red, and yellow to black, brown, and gray.
Although he’s no expert on aphids — there are very few of them — Lohman said the swarms are unusual, given that aphids don’t usually come out in New York City until after summer. He hypothesized that the warm winter temperatures could have contributed to causing the insect’s biological clock to malfunction.
On Friday, Lohman went in search of aphid experts who could intervene.
“Aphids fly anytime during the growing season,” wrote aphid expert Natalie Hernandez in an email to Lohman. “If a colony gets too big, too dense, it will produce winged morphs to disperse.”
Wildfires in Canada and extreme temperatures “could also bother them,” she added.
This theory seemed plausible to Andy Jensen, another aphid researcher.
“The smoke could allow the aphids to stay abundant longer in the summer than normal,” Jensen said. “Many aphids slow or stop reproduction in the heat of summer.”
Whatever the cause, the city’s public health department said, there was no cause for alarm.
“Although it may be annoying, these insects do not pose a known risk to public health,” the department said in a statement Friday. “We are reviewing these bugs and will share any important health information.”
Insect experts say the swarms shouldn’t last much longer, which is a relief for Jeremy Cohen, who was biking in Brooklyn when he felt like he was being pelted with chunks of hail.
Sometimes he steered his bicycle with one hand and used the other to cup his mouth and nose.
“I knew the air quality was bad, so I just assumed it was debris from the wildfires flying around – which I thought would have been crazy,” said Cohen, a professional photographer. “Then I slowly realized there was a swarm of insects flying around.”
While some considered the insects annoying, the presence of so many insects thrilled Lohman.
“The appearance of all these aphids signals something wonderful: New York is organic! he said. “If pesticide use were widespread, there wouldn’t be so many aphids.”