Friday 5: 5 Insects You Might See on a White Christmas

It’s Christmas Eve, so today’s  Friday 5 will have a winter theme!  If you live somewhere outside of the southernmost parts of the United States like I do, you have probably been experiencing some real winter weather.  This usually means that the insects have hunkered down for the winter and very few things are active.  However, there are several insects that are still active even when it’s close to zero degrees and the ground is covered with several feet of snow!  These are 5 insects that you could see running around on top of the snow on a white Christmas, assuming you live in the areas where they are found:

Grylloblattaria

Rock crawler. Image by Alex Wild, from myrmecos.net

1. Rock crawlers. Grylloblattodea is a funky order of insects that contains very few, highly specialized species.  These insects are very well suited to living on snow and have all sorts of adaptations that allow them to do so.  In fact, they are typically only found at very high elevations, high latitudes, or on glaciers!  These insects are scavengers that run around on top of the snow and collect aerial plankton that is swept into their cold habitats on the wind.  Few people even know these insects exist, let alone have actually seen one.  Want to see them in action?  There’s a great, short video on YouTube created by a rock crawler researcher that’s definitely worth watching!

Capniid stonefly

Small winter stonefly (family Capniidae). Photo by Tom Eisele and from http://bugguide.net/node/view/175731.

2. Winter stoneflies. Stoneflies in at least two families (Capniidae and Taeniopterygidae) have adults that actually emerge in the winter and are commonly seen on top of the snow.  Unlike most of the other insects in this post, these insects actually have wings.  Whether they fly around on very cold days is an entirely different matter though.  These are cold blooded animals after all, and insect wing muscles require a certain amount of heat to function.  If they can’t warm up their wing muscles, they can’t fly!  But even if they can’t fly, there are certain advantages to being an insect that emerges in the winter.  Probably the most important is related the fact that very few animals are active outdoors when it’s very cold, including many animals that might like to eat a sluggish insect that can’t warm it’s wing muscles up enough to fly.

snow fly

Snow fly (Family Limoniidae, Genus Chionea). Photo by Cosmin Manci, from http://iz.carnegiemnh.org/cranefly/limoniinae.htm.

3.  Snow flies. Snow flies are close relatives of the crane flies and are active during the winter.  They are wingless, though like all flies they do exhibit halteres.  These flies run around on the snow and have been observed sucking the snow with their mouthparts to drink.  Like their crane fly relatives, they are not thought to feed.

Snow scorpionfly

Snow scorpionfly. Photo by Stephen Luk, from http://bugguide.net/node/view/169476/bgimage.

4. Snow scorpionflies. Like the rock crawlers, I would dearly love to see one of these wingless scorpionflies on the snow!  These insects belong to the order Mecoptera, though, unlike the rock crawlers, the entire order is not adapted for life in cold weather.  Instead, there are just a handful of species within the family Boreidae that survive well on the snow.  But those species need the cold weather.  Supposedly, the heat from your hand is enough to kill one of these bugs!

5. Snow Fleas. These aren’t technically insects, even though they have 6 legs, and therefore aren’t real fleas.  However, they are hexapods, so they’re very closely related.  Snow fleas are members of the order Collembola, the springtails.  The snow fleas are quite active, sometimes in very large numbers, during sunny winter days and look like pepper on the snow.  Though it’s not exactly known what these creatures do on top of the snow, they’re thought to be eating algae that grows on the surface of the snow.  How’s that for specialized?!

There you have it!  If you’re out and about on a sunny white Christmas in the northern parts of North America, keep an eye out for these insects running across the snow!

I wish all of my readers who celebrate Christmas a very happy holiday.  And to the rest of you, I wish you a happy winter!

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