As the Curator of Entomology for the Royal BC Museum, Joel Gibson spends his days studying insects — even during the winter.
“I moved [to Victoria] from Ontario,” says Gibson, “and I noticed the winter here is pretty mild [compared to the rest of Canada], but the winter is still the winter. I mean, it gets cold, and there’s a lot less for the insects to eat.”
And that got him thinking.
“Are there any insects in the winter, and what are they doing?”
Gibson points out that some insects, such as the monarch butterfly, migrate to warmer climates. Wasps, on the other hand, die off every winter.
Except for the queen.
“They all die off,” says Gibson “except one big queen, who will bury herself in the dirt, or under the bark of a log, and over-winter.
“In the spring the queen comes out and starts a whole new nest.
“So, every year you’re pestered with wasps in the summer? That started from one hardy female that made it through the winter. And all those big wasp nests you see, are all grown from scratch every year!”
Another winter insect is snowfleas.
“Which are actually crane flies” says Gibson. “The big long-leggedy things you see flying around in the summer. There’s a couple of species that are only found on the snow.
“And they’ll crawl around on snow — you’ll see them up on Mount Washington, you’ll see them on the mainland on some of the higher mountain peaks, walking on snow. They’re big fat things with no wings.
“And then there’s the snow scorpion fly, which is not a scorpion, and it’s not a fly…”
Gibson explains that because both these species have no wings, they crawl along the snow, eating whatever dead things they can find.
He also brings up the winter moth, an invasive species now populating this region.
“They’re normally found in Northern Europe and Scandinavia. They’ve been introduced in the Eastern part of North America, and since about the 70’s or 80’s, they’ve been in Victoria and southern Vancouver Island.”
While the male winter moth can fly, females have no wings.
“And because they don’t have any wings,” says Gibson, “they crawl up the side of a tree and wait for a male. So, the way they control [this invasive insect] is just by putting sticky tape around the bases of trees, so that the females get stuck on it.”
Gibson explains that this invasive species is a concern “because they have a pretty big appetite. Those females, when they do crawl up the tree, and they mate, and they lay eggs… they tend to have tons of caterpillars that like to eat maple and garry oak.”
That tree wrapping takes place in November, as winter approaches and the awaiting females are active. Giving Gibson yet another species to study in the colder months.
“I like insects. I like to look at them through the microscope, and think ‘these are weird and wonderful!'”
Weird, wonderful, and with us all year round.