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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Water Insects

Air Date: Week of

Sometimes it takes the eye, of a trained naturalist, like Living On Earth commentator Sy Montgomery to point out the more subtle characters in daily life like the bugs of winter. Sy Montgomery is author of "Life's Everyday Mysteries". She comes to us care of New Hampshire Public Radio


CURWOOD: And finally this week, a farewell of sorts to winter. The Spring Equinox is just about a week away, and for the etymologicaly challenged there's one reason to lament winter's passing: no bugs, of course. At least none that meet the eye, unless the eye belongs to a trained naturalist. Like Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery.

MONTGOMERY: A few insects like monarchs fly off to Mexico. Some dragonflies, like the familiar green darner and the peripatetic wandering globetrotter, migrate sometimes by the millions to winter in Florida. But most insects actually stick around. The reason we don't see them is, in many cases they've solved the problem of winter by turning into something else. The larvae of the showy cecropia moth transforms itself into a chrysalis. You might find this fist-sized gray silken pouch hanging at the tip of birch or alder at the edge of a swamp.

Some insects actually change the contents of their blood for the season. They replace much of their normal body fluids with glycerol, similar to the glycol used in automobile antifreeze. Some also thicken their blood. These measures lower the freezing point of their blood to minus 53 degrees Fahrenheit. Thanks to this chemistry, the familiar black and brown woolly bear caterpillar, the larva of a tiger moth, can wait out the snow under just a few inches of leaf litter.

Saw flies hide just beneath logs. Perhaps most miraculous of all, the fragile violet-brown morning cloak butterfly survives almost completely exposed. With wings closed, showing only its drab undersides, it's nearly invisible against logs or the dark bark of trees. And after a punishing winter, the morning cloak is one of the first insects to fly again in spring, often even before the snow melts.

Other insects construct shelters. The larch case bearer hollows out the tip of a larch needle, backs into it, and wears it like a camouflage suit of armor. Leaf rollers use silk like a combination of thread and glue. You'll know one of these caterpillars was at work when you notice a leaf that looks like a hand-rolled cigar.

As we rush about shoveling snow and hauling wood, it's good to be humbled by the far more elegant solutions to winter devised by the insect world. They may have brains smaller than the head of a pin, but they have the wisdom of the ages on their side. After all, they've been around 400 million years, and they've seen and survived almost everything the earth has to offer.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery is author of Life's Everyday Mysteries. She comes to us from New Hampshire Public Radio.



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