Notice anything different about the winter at Camp Salmen, beside that it’s colder? No insects! (Or, at least, a very few.) For creatures that seem to be everywhere and in great variety and profusion in summer, it is remarkable to contemplate their absence between then and now.
Unlike us metabolically warm, fat and happy mammals clothed in furs and stylish clothing, the naked insect, whether spindly or plump, can’t produce its own heat and can only react to colder temperatures by slowing to a stop. So where are they now? Are they all underfoot, as billions of larvae buried in the soil? Did they fly south for the winter like birds do? Do some of them actually tough it out through winter’s freezes? It turns out, all three scenarios can happen to different kinds of insects.
Some dragonflies, beetles, butterflies and moths, in spite of their small size and apparent fragility, actually do travel great distances to relocate to warmer climes for the winter, more than likely to Mexico and Central America. They take advantage of northerly gusts of seasonal winds or try to find the calmer layers in the sky in which to make headway. Sensitive radars have been able to track diffuse clouds of insects doing this. More often than not, this is a one-way trip for them as the insect reproduces while on vacation and leaves it to its offspring to make the return trip.
Surviving the fate of actually freezing solid and coming back to life afterward is a tough act. Very few insects do it, as cellular disruption by expanding ice crystals can be an ugly thing in a small body. However, some, like the Wooly Bear caterpillar of the Tiger Moth, an Antarctic midge, certain beetles and, of course, some cockroaches can pull it off. For those bugs that don’t have enough anti-freeze in them to put off the last little bit of total freezing, they can use the trick of having nucleating proteins that slow things down enough to let the cells shift around to temporarily accept freezing solid and will miraculously re-animate when regaining their liquids.
The great majority of insects, be they eggs, larvae or adults, endure winter underground, just beyond frosts and ice, or protected inside something like a rotten log or a hole. Most rely on the chemical tricks of an internal anti-freeze of salts, fats and water elimination on the chance they can hold total ice-crystallization at bay. Some make it, some don’t. These trillions of bugs, along with all the roots, microbes, earthworms and moles are now living underfoot at Camp Salmen, making a high percentage of biomass living within every cubic foot of our topsoil. Someday, the bugs will arise once again into the air when the warmer weather will allow them to fly in our faces and land in our soups.