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Yes, we can have mosquitoes in winter

Adult mosquito. Note the tubular mouth. (Photo by Mark Sparky Stensaas)1 / 3
Adult mosquito on a wall. Note the proboscis. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 3
An adult winter crane fly on the snow. Note that it has no proboscis. (Photo by Larry Weber)3 / 3

Late February is upon us. No doubt we are still in the season of winter and most likely we'll see weeks more of the cold times. Temperatures vary much during February. A recent morning of 10 below in much of the region was followed by a day about 40 above.

This 50-degree change in two days brings on many responses. I see it mostly with the snow conditions. What was a dry powder quickly became wet and sticky. But the biggest cause of change in the natural scene now is that of daylight hours. On Feb. 8, we recorded 10 hours between sunrise and sunset and with the addition of three minutes each day since, we now have light for 10 1/2 hours, 11 by the time we exit February. This, along with mild temperatures, brings much response.

I notice it with birds right near the house. The finches that gather for a communal breakfast here each morning and then sporadic returns during the day are now starting to become more restless. The pine siskins, along with a few redpolls, are giving wheezy-sounding calls in the yard. These sounds seem to increase as we go toward late winter.

Purple finches have just recently started trying to sing their melodious songs. At this time, the notes are not complete, but I'm sure they will continue. All these finches — purple finches, goldfinches, pine siskins and redpolls — are likely to continue to take my handouts for the next several weeks. Usually they are here into April before departing.

Also of note are the drumming sounds of woodpeckers that resonate from the woods. Each day now I hear the downy, hairy and pileated woodpeckers proclaiming territorial ownership to the surroundings. Ravens frequently fly over in early pair bonding while crows gather in loud crowds. Chickadees and nuthatches add their calls, too. The local barred owls that have put up with the dark cold all winter claim breeding territories as they give their nocturnal calls.

It is too early for most migrants, but a few changes may be happening. I saw a bald eagle recently and in some years, I have noticed flocks of snow buntings and horned larks along the roadsides by this date. The squirrels in the yard feel the seasonal changes, too, and they start to notice each other instead of just the seeds that they've been taking from the feeder all winter. Rabbits and hare are also more active, as can be seen in the abundance of new tracks each day.

With these things happening, it was really not much of a surprise when a neighbor told me that he had seen a mosquito. Insects in winter may sound unlikely, but it does happen. On mild days in December through March there are several that appear, some right on the snow. Best known are the tiny black dots of "snow fleas," a type of wingless insect (not a flea) that is about the same size and color as pepper. They use specialized appendages to hop about on the snow surface.

Also two kinds of crane flies, one with wings and one without, are often seen as well. While the wingless ones walk, the other flies about, perhaps surprising us a bit as they flitter near us. About the size of a mosquito and with only two wings, these crane flies are closely related to mosquitoes. A big difference is that they lack the puncturing mouthparts that we are so used to seeing on a mosquito.

So when a mosquito was reported to me, I thought that it was mistaken identity and it was really a crane fly. A closer look revealed a proboscis (the "tube" used to puncture our skin to take blood) and it was seen indoors. These two facts told me yes, it was actually a mosquito.

The mosquitoes we deal with during the rest of the year have a life cycle of eggs hatching in a wet site. The larvae swim here and grow up to become the moving pupae on the water's surface, later turning into adults that die as cold moves in. With this aquatic component to their life, they can only be around when there is no ice covering the water; no mosquitoes in winter. But exceptions exist. There is a species of mosquito in the Northland that does not die in the fall. Instead it hibernates by going behind tree bark for the cold times.

And so when I asked if he burned wood during the winter, I had the answer. The mosquito, last autumn, went behind bark as expected for winter. The chosen site was on a piece of firewood and when it was brought indoors, the mosquito responded to the warmth as though it was spring. It woke and flew out, alerting my neighbor. But I also told him not to expect much biting or large numbers of them.

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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