It’s been described as a plague and a sign of the end times, turning New York City into the “Bug Apple.”
Insects may descend on populated places in unusual swarms for many reasons, such as the search for food or a mate. But New Yorkers pestered by clouds of small insects this week have wondered whether they were being dealt another consequence of the smothering smoke drifting in from Canadian wildfires.
As swarms of bugs were changing the city’s horizon, layering the muted skyline of skyscrapers with a swirling, street-level cloud of insects, some New Yorkers complained they could not open their mouths to breathe as they walked down the street, for fear of inhaling a big gulp of them.
Pedestrians swatted as they walked. Diners at outdoor patios in Brooklyn fanned the air around their tables.
Gothamist reported that “residents of the Bug Apple want these unwelcome tourists to skip town.”
WABC amplified the city’s pain: “No, you are not ‘bugging-out.’ A swarm of insects has seemingly taken over the city.”
But for every offhand, on-the-street reference to a Biblical-style plague, be it a swarm of locusts or gnats or hail and thunder, there is a scientist.
Dr. Corrie Moreau, a Cornell University professor in entomology, who looked at images of the insects, which can be green or white, said she believed they were aphids. Insect swarms often emerge to coordinate reproduction, which she believed could be attributed to the current appearance in New York City.
“It is unusual that there are so many of these aphids swarming this year,” she said. “It is because of the mild winter.”
Aphids are non-stinging insects that normally suck juice from plants. They are generally wingless, but will appear in winged form when flying off to find new food sources.
The mild winter and moisture from a recent rainy spring helped more flowers and plants grow, which could have made the aphids go into reproductive mode.
Kim Adams, an entomologist at the State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, said she had not identified the insects. But she said wind or a favorable food source were also catalysts for insects to cluster and move.
She said it was likely “not smoke related.”
Since there has been no definitive identification of the species, some New Yorkers feared the worst.
Gil Bloom, the president of Standard Pest Management in Astoria, Queens, said his business received an early morning message from someone asking whether it was safe to go outside. The swarm poses no threat, he said, “unless you are a plant.”
In Canada, the source of the smoke from the fires, Doug Currie, the senior curator of entomology at the Royal Ontario Museum, said his most memorable aphid swarm was in 2001, when soybean aphids clustered so heavily around the lights of the stadium then known as the SkyDome that a Toronto Blue Jays game against the Baltimore Orioles was paused in the third inning.
“It caused them to close the roof to get the game going again,” he said.
He said he had not heard of similar aphid hordes in Canada, either related to the smoke or not.
“Trust me, the Canadian media would be contacting me,” he said.
But in New York, there might be some slim connection.
“I think that the smoke is amplifying our ability to see them well,” Dr. Moreau said. “Because I can’t see that far, I tend to focus on things that are closer.”
Aphids are probably not harmful if accidentally ingested, which some city types have been expressing is a concern if they walk down the street with jaws agape. So forget the “bug” pollution. It’s the smoke to be concerned about.
“There have been enough Manhattanites who have been biking. These are not toxic in any way,” Dr. Moreau said. “They should have masks on anyway, from the air quality.”