Late winter insect life: winter aconite blossoms and dipteran visitors
When do the first insect activities in the new year occur? Can insects be active in winter, even in the presence of snow? The answer is generally yes, different insect species even use to appear on warmer winter days on top of snow layers. Examples are the limoniid crane fly Chionea belgica, a wingless dipteran, which can be observed on milder winter days on snow surfaces along forest edges in Central Europe. Also the fly Trichocera hiemalis belongs to the winter crane flies (Trichoceridae) and can be characterized by a very well developed cold resistance. It appears on sunny winter days between branches of leafless trees in swarms around invading sunlight beams.
The winter aconite as an early blooming flower and its biology
But what about insects, visiting blooming flowers? This requires the existance of early blossoms, which can grow and bloom under winter conditions. A well known example is the winter aconite Eranthis hyemalis, which outlasts the summer period only by its underground tubers. Their conspicuous yellow blossoms belong to the first blooming flowers in the year. In Central Europe, they begin to grow under suitable conditions in mid February. They require milder temperatures, but even persist in case an unusual cold snap would happen. The blossoms open only at sunshine and thus close shortly after sunset. Opening and closing is a growth process, which depends on temperature conditions. Such a phenomenon is called thermonasty.
The winter aconite as a neophyte in Germany
In Central Europe, such as in Germany, E. hyemalis is a neophyte. It is originally native to Southern European areas, Turkey, South-East-France, Italy, Bulgaria and Hungary.
The species was introduced to Central Europe (and North America) as ornamental plant for gardens. It is proven that it was in Germany already cultivated since the 16th century. The German botanist, nature researcher and medical doctor Joachim Camerarius reared the winter agonite, which he brought from Italy, since 1588 in his backyards.
Common pollinating insects
Pollinating insects of E. hyemalis are flies, bumblebees and bees. To reach the nectar inside the blossoms requires a proboscis length of about two mm, which is mostly given in bumblebees and bees.
Flowerbed in Berlin urban park Schillerpark
I documented via my videography (4K) and photography a smaller area of winter aconites in front of a wall at urban park „Schillerpark“ (honoring the German poet Friedrich Schiller) in Berlin. The bright bricks of that wall reflected efficiently the solar warmth and thus created suitable conditions for a late winter flowerbed full of life.
Video with winter aconite blossoms and pollunating flies, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth.
Most abundant insects in that winter aconite bed
Western honey bee, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth
The western honey bee Apis mellifera was often seen on blossoms, but unfortunately was not captured via video footage. Our honey bee hibernates in a so called winter clusters with lower temperatures and low activities in workers. Beginning in late winter/ early spring, workers increase the nest temperature due to body movements up to 35°C. This is exactly the body temperature, workers need to fly out and collect first nectar and pollen, for example from the winter agonite.
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Drone fly on blossom of the winter aconite, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth
The drone fly Eristalis tenax belongs to the hoverflies (Syrphidae). Their larvae develop in watery environments, where they use their conspicuous snorkel tube to breath air at the water surface. Adults are typical blossom visitors, preferring Asteraceae and Apiaceae. Interesting highlight of their biology is the migratory behavior. These migratory insects form swarms, which cross the Alpes towards Southern European areas by using suitable wind conditions, where they finally hibernate and reproduce. The next generation returns the same way back. Not all individuals participate these migratory flights and would try to hibernate in Central Europe. Hibernating individuals are always females, which were fertilized prior to their winter diapause or their migration and which lay their eggs in the subsequent spring or in southern regions during winter. In Germany they only survive in greater numbers in milder winters, which they persist in temperature-stable hideways, such as gaps inside walls or wooden habitats. These specimen can be usually observed early in the year, beginning with March, when visiting blooming flowers. Their numerous very early appearance in mid February 2019 might be due to a very warm summer 2018 and a subsequent very mild winter in north-eastern Germany (Berlin). I have no comparative findings regarding the usual blooming time of the winter aconite and the abundance of drone flies there for Berlin or even this specific urban park. I also don’t know about indications that due to a global warming, as in some migratory birds, less specimens of the fly would migrate and more stay to hibernate here around.
The research station „Randecker Maar“ in the Swabian Jura records changes in migratory flights of birds and insects. They discovered a distinct decline of numbers of migrating drone flies and interpret it as a result of the increasing application of poisonous substances in the agricultural sector. Whether they additionally consider this being due to more individuals hibernating, where they are, based on generally warmer temperatures (global warming) is unknown to me.
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Blow fly on blossom of the winter aconite, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth
The blow fly Calliphora vicina is a common blossom visitor in early spring and autumn. This fly, typically appearing in human settlements in Europe and the New World, is well adapted for an activity at lower temperatures (more than 13°C). While larvae develop in decomposing organic tissue (such as cadavers of animals), adults feed on nectar and pollen. They additionally incorprate saps from organic material with a strong odor.
C. vicina produces about five generation per year and throughout the year. The flies can even be active in winter, when temperatures reach a suitable level.
Other fly species were existant, but I did not determine them.
Time of footage and photo recording
Video footage and photos were recorded between 16 and 18 February 2019 in the urban park Schillerpark in Berlin.
Copyrights: Stefan F. Wirth, Berlin 2019.