Starting Small

With the arrival of the first sixty degree day in nearly six months (since October 12, 2013…but who’s counting!), It seemed wise to start small and see if even a fly or a spider could be found, some small living thing from under the recently dismantled snowdrifts. So I drove to a grouping of local catchment ponds that get a lot of sun and always thaw out early. Perched here and there on the windlestraes were several big, recently numb tachnid flies and a miniscule black beetle like a small shining obsidian bead. Beneath some nearby pines, I found a Lynx Spider spiderling not much larger than an ant’s tear or a beetle’s begging cup. A little further on, three powder-gray grasshopper nymphs kicked and tumbled among the dead grass blades and dropped needles.

Most grasshoppers overwinter as eggs, but the Green-striped Grasshopper (Chortophaga viridifasciata) gets a jump on those by overwintering as a nymph. The two nymphs pictured here, are both third instar nymphs, based on the wing development, the smallish wing pads pointing down with veins visible.

With the help of an Olympus micro 4/3 camera, extension tubes, and 45mm lens, starting small can get splendidly big, the small nymphs growing to colossal size on the screen. A close-up of the chitinous face reveals something like weathered stone, shiny in places like the glaze on the pottery in our cupboards. Zooming in on the painted eye, reveals a sphere like a tipped half-moon, a shape that wouldn’t look at all out of place on a Henry Moore bronze. Just how tough do you have to be to survive winter, especially without a fireplace or central heat, I sometimes wonder? These small nymphs are just one of the many answers to that question.

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5 thoughts on “Starting Small

  1. Wonderful descriptions! I’ve seen these tiny grasshoppers in early spring other years and wondered what they were. Thank you! -Dianne

  2. So how do the nymphs survive the bitter winter and what useful hints can we learn from these hardy creatures? How cold is it nestled under leaves and dry grasses and inches of snow when the air temp and wind chill are -20-30 below? Hmm….a winter camping adventure might be in store….

    1. We and the insects differ so greatly that I doubt there’s much we can take away in terms of winter survival tactics, except to marvel at their ability to survive those conditions. Scientists have studied this, of course. Many of the overwintering insects survive by a combination of dehydration and antifreeze, preventing ice crystals from forming and rupturing their living cells. The Red Flat Bark Beetle I posted about before has survived laboratory temperatures of -70 degrees, so it can be a pretty effective method. And a blanket of snow is indeed a blanket, providing quite a lot of protection from the colder air temperatures above. The biologist Bernd Heinrich has written a good book about this, Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival, including chapters on a wide variety of animals, not solely insects.

      1. Silly grasshopper, it isn’t survival lessons that the nymphs offer, rather inspiration (which is every bit as important!) for a classic Jack London’esk winter adventure. It would be fun..and a challenge and maybe cold..but still fun!

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