Winter Insects

(This Buffalo News column was first published on February 21, 1994.)

     It was the first day in over a month that the temperature would rise to near freezing, and this, I was told, would be the best time to look for, of all things, winter insects!

     Winter insects?  Your reaction is probably much as mine was: Surely there are none active at this time, especially considering the harsh conditions of this winter.  We might find cocoons or galls, but live insects in this deep snow?  Hardly.

     But I'm game.  I joined Wayne Gall, Nora Lindell, and Joe Thill on their expedition to Deer Lick Nature Sanctuary.  Owned by Nature Conservancy, this lovely 500 acre tract is just south of the Village of Gowanda.  Wayne parked the museum van on Point Peter Road and we trudged into the park along a ski trail.  It was rough going as there was not quite enough crust to support our weight.  Every other step we broke through and our feet plunged deep into softer snow.  Soon jackets were unzipped as our mile hike warmed us.

     It was a beautiful morning, the sky clear and the sun bright on the sparkling snow.  This was mixed second-growth woodland with a few hemlocks among the largely bare hardwoods.  Only a few beech shrubs retained translucent leaves.  The deciduous trees were mostly maples and ashes, but there were a few yellow birch and tulip trees.  Wayne pointed out a black hickory, whose bud scars under a magnifying glass had a monkey-like appearance, and a honey locust, its groups of radiating spines suggesting medieval battle weapons.

     And now we began to find the insects we sought.  First a single tiny black dot on the snow.  Then two, three, five.  As the temperature rose, my counts increased too: dozens and finally hundreds.  By the time we returned to the van several hours later, we had seen thousands of these small denizens of the forest.

     Most plentiful were the springtails or snowfleas.  Under a hand lens they look like little crustaceans, minute elongated crayfish without claws.  But unlike crayfish and spiders, these are true insects with six legs.  Wingless and slow crawlers, they enjoy a remarkable alternate means of transportation.  As the name springtail suggests, they have a forked structure at the back of their abdomen that bends beneath their body and hooks against their underside.  When released, this "tail" whips back to propel the insect several inches.  It was amusing to watch these Lilliputians, scarcely bigger than snow crystals, leap a hundred times their own length.  Olympic athletes indeed.

     We found representatives of two other insect orders, less common and not nearly as spectacular, but interesting nonetheless.  There were winter stoneflies, delicate little quarter inch long creatures with transparent wings folded along their bodies.  These had emerged from a stream and would now complete their life cycle in a day or two.  Many were already mating.  There were also a few snow crane flies, the ones we found without wings and looking much like miniature daddy-long-legs.  As is often the case with that unrelated arthropod, several of these crane flies had lost one or more of their delicate legs.

     I learned that in current entomological usage it is snowflea and stonefly but crane fly, only the latter using two words.  That is because only the crane fly is a true fly like the house fly we know too well.  Snowfleas and stoneflies are in different orders from fleas and flies and don't rate the extra word.

     As you venture out in the warming weather, look in your old footprints for some of these tiny black invertebrates.  There are indeed insects abroad in winter -- and quite fascinating ones at that.-- Gerry Rising