They say* that it’s been a mild winter so far, warm even. And whilst I suppose I can’t dispute that, it hasn’t been quite consistently warm enough to prevent the necessity of scraping the car in the frozen murk of 7am on a Monday morning. When I can’t feel my fingers and there is a fragile smear of ice crystals even on the inside of the windscreen, I almost sympathise with those scientific illiterates who are ready to dismiss the notion of global ‘warming’ at the first whiff of snow. “Mild winter?!”, I exclaim, shivering. “What mild winter?!”
Presuming that they lack the capacity even for unreasoned thought, the insects know better than I. For whilst the weather is, with some notable flood-related exceptions, for the most part a matter of inconvenience for us, for our invertebrate friends it is the difference between thriving and annihilation. This year they seem to be tending toward the former, provided most have been able to ride out the floods. In Reading, at least, even a few bumblebee colonies, grateful for the exotic winter blooms laid on for them by the university grounds staff, are keeping busy, even through the darkest months. The first speckled wood of spring was seen days ago, and I daresay other butterflies are emerging from their slumber in good numbers. Every passing moment of warm sunlight is snatched upon by small delicate flies, which leap out to join the jostling ranks of rival males in midwinter leks.
Indeed, most of the insects that overwinter as adults or in any other mobile form (as opposed to eggs or pupae) remain far from deep hibernation, such that a simple flick of an evergreen branch sends little clouds of psocids, leafhoppers and other winged wonders spinning into the air around my head. I watch them settle back into the fresh scented branches, hoping that one or two of the more interesting types might settle on my sleeve for closer observation, or even linger long enough for capture and identification. I could take a beating tray out with me, but it would seem almost unsporting when the pickings are this rich. Besides, I don’t want to catch too many, what with the daunting number of unidentified beasts that lurk in the lab, leftover from last year.
So to Friday morning, when I found myself presenting 20 students with 200 dead bugs for a practical identification workshop and assessment. Bugs remain quite beautiful when examined in fine and fascinating detail under a microscope, yet are never as engaging as the living, animated version. I hope the students felt they learned something – I certainly did whilst preparing for the session – but I think it’s fair to say that those aiming to catch the bug-catching bug need to go out and catch their own. And I wonder if this isn’t such a bad time of year to start. It may not be the most popular or productive time of year for insect fieldwork, but when it is this mild, or allegedly so, there are plenty of creatures active enough to keep a beginner very, very busy without being overwhelmed. For a not-quite-but-was-until-very-recently-beginner like myself, that’s a good thing, too. Winter narrows down the possibilities for identification whilst also turning up the odd unexpected delight.
What’s even better, if you ask me, is that by 4 o clock it’s just about too dark to search for insects, forcing a retreat inside for tea, biscuits, chatter, and maybe even a bit of microscope work. Just when I was beginning to think that only birds were worth looking at in January, I seem to have stumbled upon the perfect time of year to be an entomologist. Happy days.
* Whoever ‘they’ are – those mysterious people that ‘we’ all complain about!