It always comes as a surprise to see tiny creatures moving nimbly over the surface of the snow. However, there are quite a few insects and spiders that do, thanks to the glycerol that they produce in their body fluids that keep them from freezing. The Snow Fly (Chionea sp.) is a type of wingless crane fly. Most likely its lack of wings is due to the fact that at sub-freezing temperatures it would be very hard to generate enough energy for maintaining flight muscles. They (along with other flies, mosquitoes and gnats) do have two vestigial wings called halteres, the little knobs on the fly’s thorax. They inform true flies about the rotation of their body during flight, and are thought to act as sensory organs for the flightless Snow Flies.
Throughout most of the year Snow Flies can be found in leaf litter, but come winter the adults emerge, mate and lay up to 200 eggs. The lack of predators such as dragonflies and most insect-eating birds makes winter a relatively safe time for Snow Flies to be out and about. Their life span is about two months, during which time they drink by pressing their proboscis against the snow, but they don’t eat. (Snow Fly in photograph is a female, measuring less than ½”.)
Thanks to a sharp-eyed Naturally Curious blog reader, a recently mis-identified active winter insect can be correctly identified. What I referred to as a “snow scorpionfly” last week was, in fact, a type of crane fly that, as an adult, has no wings. Like snow scorpionflies, these wingless snow-walking crane flies appear on top of the snow on warm winter days. These two kinds of insects are also very similar in shape and size, but, unlike snow scorpionflies, this group of crane flies have what are called halteres, knobbed filaments which act as balancing organs (see photo).
Scorpion snowflies, despite their name, are not true flies in the order Diptera. Crane flies are. Most species of true flies have one pair of wings, instead of the usual two that winged insects have, as well as halters, which take the place of hind wings and vibrate during flight. While wingless snow-walking crane flies lack a pair of wings, they do possess halteres, which are the key to distinguishing between a wingless snow-walking crane fly and a snow scorpionfly, which lacks them! (Thanks to Jay Lehtinen for photo I.D.)
On mild winter days you may wish to look closely at all the dark, little specks on the surface of the snow. Most of them will be bits of lichen, seeds or pieces of bark, but with luck you may find one or more of them moving. Active winter insects aren’t plentiful, but they do exist.
Scorpionflies are fairly common and can be recognized by their long beaks ending in visible mouthparts. (They get their name from one family of scorpionflies that possesses a scorpion-like tail.) Snow Scorpionflies belong to a family of small, flightless insects, of which there are two species in the Northeast. They only measure about 2/10’s of an inch, so careful scrutiny is necessary to spot one. Their dark color and an anti-freeze substance in their blood allows them to remain active to 21°F., during which time they feed on mosses. When startled, Snow Scorpionflies often jump up in the air and land with their legs crumpled up (see insert) looking even more like an inedible speck of dirt. It’s fairly easy to tell their gender, as female Snow Scorpionflies (photo) lack wings, and males have bristly wings adapted for grasping females.
Stoneflies spend the larval stage of their life in streams. When the larvae mature, they crawl out of the streams they grew up in, split their larval skins and emerge as winged adults, ready to mate. Stoneflies are unique among aquatic insects in that there are different species that emerge in all months of the year. Most species mature in warmer months, but some do so during warm spells in winter and there are two families (referred to as winter stoneflies) that emerge only at this time of year, perhaps because of the scarcity of predators.
Recently, perhaps due to the warm weather this past weekend, large numbers of stoneflies emerged. In places, the snowy banks of open streams were littered with half-inch adult stoneflies whose new skins were drying. This entomological exodus from the water typically takes place at night, to avoid being eaten by terrestrial insectivores and birds. After their adult skin dries, winter stoneflies can be seen crawling on top of the snow as they search for a mate.
In many species, male and females locate each other by tapping the tip of their abdomen upon the substrate, a process referred to as “drumming.” Any stoneflies in contact with that substrate will feel the vibrations of this drumming. Male and female drumming patterns are specific for each species and for each sex. Male stoneflies initiate drumming and females answer. This means of auditory communication is closely related to the “songs” of crickets, grasshoppers and katydids. The difference is that the sound waves of the terrestrial insect songs travel through the air and are loud enough for humans to hear, whereas the sound waves of stonefly drumming travels through a solid medium and is inaudible to us.
The diet of both Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings is primarily sugary fruits throughout most of year. Research shows that they can subsist on this diet exclusively for as many as 18 days. However, in winter when feeding on fruits, they also feed on buds and available insects. In warmer months, waxwings will fly out over water from exposed perches, much like flycatchers, and snatch emerging aquatic insects such as mosquitoes, midges, mayflies, caddisflies and dragonflies out of the air. They also glean for vegetation-borne insect prey, such as scale insects. At this time of year they are taking advantage of winter stonefly hatches over open streams. (photos: bohemian waxwing & stonefly)
In the Northeast, honeybees typically choose a protected site such as a hollow tree in which to build their hive. Harsh winters demand this protection. Infrequently you will see where an attempt has been made to survive the elements without anything to contain the heat that the honeybees produce by shivering, or to block the wind, snow or sleet. Inevitably, this far north, the colony does not survive the winter.
It seems early, especially with feet of snow still on the ground, to be seeing insects flying around, but some have actually been present all winter. An order of insects (Plecoptera) known as stoneflies spends its youth (one to four years) living in streams before emerging as winged adults. Some of these species, referred to as winter stoneflies, emerge from January through April, providing food for early-returning, insect-eating migrants, such as Eastern Phoebes, Tree Swallows and Red-winged Blackbirds. Stoneflies only live a few weeks, during which time they mate and lay eggs. Some do not feed, and others consume plant material. Because stoneflies are intolerant of polluted water, if you see one it’s a good indication that the water quality of the stream that it came from is excellent.