Saturday, February 25, 2012

Insect Spring

Brown-colored Green Lacewing

The first spring wildflowers grab our attention, a welcome break from the flowerlessness of winter, reassuring us that life does rebound following a seemingly lifeless season of cold and snow.  Alas, that botanical reassurance does not appear to us here in the Midwest until April when hepaticas, bloodroots, and spring beauties suddenly appear on the forest floor with unmissable abundance. However, insects begin re-emerging much sooner, reassuring insect-seeking naturalists of spring's return several weeks earlier than their plant-seeking colleagues (except for insightful folks who know of Skunk Cabbage)

I saw my first insects earlier this week as I sifted through windrows of brown, fallen leaves blown against a fence in my backyard, looking for galls and finding weathered specimens of Gall Midge (Polystepha pilulae) galls on pin oak leaves and Jewel Oak Leaf Galls (Acraspis macrocarpae) on bur oak leaves.  

Jewel Oak Leaf Gall
(Acraspis macrocarpae)
on bur oak leaf
Gall Midge
(Polystepha pilulae) galls
on pin oak leaf

I suddenly noticed a Green Lacewing walking across my gloved hand, its tan coloration flagging it as an overwintering adult, its slow gait suggesting that it had just awoken from torpor.  A short time later, a leggy brown speck on a leaf attracted my eye, resolving upon closer inspection into a Ground Crab Spider (not an insect, but a closely related arthropod).  Its 7-mm body length did not deter it from "threatening" me with outstretched anterior legs (a defensive posture). Like the lacewing, it moved slowly.  

Ground Crab Spider

My discovery of the lacewing and spider reminded me to check on the population of overwintering Spotted Lady Beetles that I knew inhabited the leaf litter surrounding the base of a nearby maple tree; sure enough, when I parted the hostas and peered into the void, I saw several dozen ladybugs milling about.

Spotted Lady Beetles

It did not escape my notice that all three of my early-appearing species were predators (with lacewings and lady beetles especially fond of aphids).  However, speculating about the significance of that ended when I read the blog of colleague Harlan Ratcliff, learning that his first insect (observed on the same day a few counties away) - a decidedly non-predatory species -  broke the pattern. Later that night, I also spotted a brown moth fluttering against our window, whipping its pristine wings against unyielding glass in a vain effort to reach the lightbulb over our kitchen table. 

A few days later, an overnight snowstorm recarpeted the landscape into a winter wonderland, imposing a pause on the progression of spring. However, I'm not discouraged. Plant spring is still several weeks away, but I've already glimpsed insect spring and feel reassured that life will return again this year.