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.)
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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 wingless, probably because 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 don’t eat. (Snow Fly in photograph is a female, measuring less than ½”.)