Buffalo Mountain Nature Preserve near Floyd, Virginia is the only place in the world to find the mealybug known as the Puto kosztarabi. The insect is named for the Virginia Tech entomologist who noticed white stuff resembling snow on the mountain grass. Michael Kosztarab, a world authority on scale insects, suspected the “snow” might actually be white waxy threads secreted by female mealybugs. He began searching and found the unique scale insect that bears his name.
“I knew immediately this was probably an undiscovered species,” Kosztarab remembers. “It was most unusual. Its nearest relatives live in Texas. How did it end up here? I searched other mountaintops with similar vegetation in Virginia and North Carolina for 17 years. Nothing.”
Kosztarab sent specimens to Douglass and Gary Miller, entomologists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They determined the critter was indeed a new species and had it named for Kosztarab in 1993. The Buffalo Mountain Mealybug, as it also known, looks a bit like a large bedbug in the female form, when naked. But the modest female is seldom seen without a drape of waxy tufts. Males are tiny, wasp-like and flit about during August mating season, then disappear.
The female Buffalo Mountain mealybugs attach themselves to plants and suck out the sap. They excrete excess sugars as honeydew, a sweet, sticky substance which tastes yummy to predators.
“When these bugs infest the lowlands, cattle and wildlife are likely to eat them along with the plants. Perhaps that is why they became isolated on this mountain,” Kosztarab says.
Buffalo Mountain is one of the most significant natural areas in Virginia, with 12 varieties of rare plants and two rare invertebrates. The combination of elevation (3,971 feet), wind-exposed summit and magnesium-rich soils make it unique in the state.
On the treeless top, strong winds and boreal climate support subalpine vegetation. The south face nurtures native grasses and wildflowers more typical to the Midwest. Magnesium-rich seeps at the mountain’s base support rare grasses and wildflowers.
Buffalo Mountain Natural Area Preserve, is open for day hiking. From Floyd take U.S. 221 south about 6 miles to Va. 727. Turn left (south) on 727 and go about six miles to a low saddle. Turn right on the gravel access road; it’s about a mile to the gravel parking area.