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Anthills in the March sunlight

An anthill showing snow melt when the surroundings are still under a snow cover. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 2
An anthill with snow melted off it in the March sunlight. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 2

We are now in the amazing month of March. And often the weather is truly amazing. Many of us remember the huge snowstorms and even good old-fashioned blizzards that hit during this month.

It isn't always snow that we encounter during this time; March has given us some powerful ice storms as well. Showing us that winter still prevails in the early days, we often experience subzero temperatures that we may have thought were over for the season. But this is also the month when spring begins and we have some days in the 50s and 60s scattered throughout these varying 31 days. This truly is a month of change and we've seen it all in Marches of recent years.

The longer days are the basic push to cause the winter to relinquish its hold. We begin March with about 11 hours of daylight that quickly lengthen to 12 hours shortly after mid-month and following the vernal equinox. On the first day of spring, this year the night of March 19-20, the daylight is longer than darkness. As we exit March, spring days of more than 12 1/2 hours prevail and are getting longer.

Nature responds to all this light and we can see it easily, often right near our homes. Early migrant birds are in the area. Flocks of crows let us know of their return. Raptors such as bald eagles and red-tailed hawks move north for more hunting. The longer and higher sunshine give us more warmth and rivers begin to reveal lengthening stretches of water. Migrant Canada geese, mallards, goldeneyes and mergansers are quick to find these water sites. Sometimes we may be fortunate enough to see wandering trumpeter swans here, too.

I always notice a restlessness of the birds at the feeders. The redpolls that have been present throughout the cold now are more likely to move about during the day. Sometimes other finches — pine siskins, goldfinches or purple finches — may move in.

March is a month of microhabitats. On the south and west sides of buildings and hillsides, the snowpack, which can still be considerable, will melt first. Sunlight hits these hot spots and we see the exposed earth again after so many weeks of a snow cover. It is at these locations we might find early waking flies, ladybugs and spiders. In the nearby soil, some chutes of greening grass or crocuses appear. At the base of many deciduous trees, the snow has melted in a circular pattern. Here we may detect green mosses that were here all winter.

Anyone driving on east-west roads at this time can see the season's changes. On the north side of the road, south-facing, the snowpack will be less, sometimes gone, as compared to the other side. Here, too, I have seen an interesting March phenomenon: the anthills.

The ubiquitous ants seem to be everywhere around us. All of these social insects have an organized home, usually underground, but some build mounds above the earth's surface, what we often call anthills. Though several species of these tiny insects construct such structures, perhaps the larger ones built by workers of the wood ants are the most notable.

With a great deal of work and persistence, these ants build a colony home, something like a "city" with hundreds or thousands of members, each one doing a specific task. The queen produces the eggs while various types of workers do other jobs to keep the colony thriving. And thrive is what they do in these mounds that can be a couple of feet tall and maybe 3 or 4 feet long in an oval shape. Not only do these hills provide for a place to raise the colony, they also prove to be a bit of a warming site.

Ask I looked at the roadside snowpack, I noticed that the snow had melted on the anthills before the nearby ground cover. A closer look revealed that the mounds were in the sunlight and on the surface the ants had removed grasses and other vegetation. The surface was dark with soil and conifer needles. This dark cover, in the lengthening sunlight of March, allowed the ant home to melt before other places, thus warming the colony that spent the winter in the shelter of a subterranean home. In other words, the ants use passive solar power to warm their dwellings.

Once I saw this in one anthill, I began to see more of these large ant mounds with melted surfaces. Often they were the only site of melted snow. And the anthills were built at a place where they could get much sunlight.

Ants are very successful insects and this use of solar power, now in March, is one example that shows us how they can survive so well.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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