Well, our pool of many–legged critters to write about may be getting smaller with the cold weather, but there are still some winter hardy bugs out and about. Like the little grey thing in the image below. Is it a tiny moth? A weird fly? A bit of lint with legs? Nope, none of the above. It’s actually a type of tiny insect called a Psyllid.
This is not just any Psyllid though. This is the Hackberry Nipplegall Maker Psyllid, Pachypsylla celtidismamma (family = Aphalaridae). Yes, you read that correctly lol. It is actually called a “nipplegall maker”! I swear I didn’t make it up. It gets its name from the shape of the structures on the leaves it causes the tree to make. Wait, it makes the tree do things? Like tree mind control?! What are you talking about?? Maybe we should start at the beginning so that it makes more sense :)
Psyllids are type of small sap sucking insects that have their own taxonomic “superorder” called Psylloidea. As nymphs (immature insects that look kinda like aphids or mini versions of the adult just missing their wings), they suck on the sap of plant leaves. This particular type of psyllid produces a chemical when feeding that causes the plant to grow weird. When the psyllid’s mouthparts pierce the plant’s leaves, the plant produces little structures to try and seal off the damage. These strange looking structures produced by the plant are called “galls”. Instead of discouraging the insect from feeding on its leaves though, the psyllid nymphs actually stay in the middle of gall and let it grow around them. Then they continue to eat the leaf from inside the gall and use it as a protected hide away! How sneaky is that?!
Psyllids aren’t the only insect that has figured out a way to use a plant’s own defense system against it. There are many different lineages of insects that have evolved to make plants to produce protective galls, including flies, moths, and even some tiny wasps. Plant galls can come in all sorts of different shapes, colors, sizes, and locations on the plant depending on the particular type of insect and plant it is feeding on. The Hackberry Nipplegall Maker causes little “nipple” like structures on the bottom of hackberry tree leaves. Personally, I think they look more like warts than nipples, but I wasn’t the one that named them lol.
Just like not all gall makers are psyllids, not all psyllids are gall makers. Some psyllids, like the boxwood psyllids I wrote about earlier this year, just cause the leaves of a plant to turn yellow. No growths, nipples, or other protuberances at all. Seems so boring in comparison to our naughty little Hackberry Nipplegall Maker here lol.
The Hackberry Nipplegall Maker is a pest species native to eastern North America. Although they can occasionally cause some premature leaf drop if a tree is heavily infested, it rarely causes any significant damage. Other than the unsightly galls or “nipple” growths of course. As tiny as they are (only about one tenth of an inch long), these native pests actually provide an additional winter food source for a lot of birds and squirrels. They even have a parasitoid wasp that depends on them for food. Pretty useful to have around as far as pests go in my opinion…
So. Now you know about the tiny, but naughty, Hackberry Nipplegall Maker. If you have any hackberry trees nearby, take a look at their leaves (likely fallen on your driveway by now if you live anywhere cold like me). Chances are you’ll be able to find a few of their small nipple galls. And if it’s a sunny day out, you may even be able to find an adult out and about inconspicuously soaking up the sun… Even in the cool weather :)
Want to read more about the Hackberry Nipplegall Maker Psyllid? Check out these resources:
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