Thawing Frozen Bugs; The Grand Experiment

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about seeing insects frozen in ice, and speculated about how they’d gotten there and whether or not they might still be alive.  Several of you encouraged me to chip them out of the ice and thaw them out, apparently under the impression that I walk around with an ice axe in my camera bag.  Nevertheless, it was a fair point.  Why speculate aimlessly about something that’s relatively easy to test – especially since it wasn’t the first time I had speculated on the same topic?  (See this post from 2014 and this one from 2011.)  For my 2014 post, I actually did pull a beetle out of the ice and watched it thaw.  It was dead.

Yesterday afternoon, I went out to our family prairie with two of our boys.  Daniel needed to do some video work for a school project, and Calvin wanted to continue working on a project he’d started over the weekend, which seems to involve propping sticks against a tree.  Anyway, two boys wanted to go to the prairie – what am I going to do, say no?  We went.

The boys had a great time playing on the ice while I was looking at dead bugs.  I should maybe reevaluate my life choices.

It was about 60 degrees when we got to the prairie, and while the wetland was still frozen enough to walk on, the top of the ice was melting.  Scattered about the wetland and a nearby livestock watering tank were numerous insects that had been frozen yesterday but today were sitting in shallow puddles of water on top of the ice.  Ah ha!  No ice axe required today!  I grabbed a ziplock bag from my pack (an item even more essential to a naturalist than an ice axe) and starting scooping up cold insects and enough water to keep them in.

A cell phone photo of a couple insects on the frozen surface of a livestock watering tank.

When we got home, I dumped the bag of pond water and insects into a shallow bowl.  The following is a series of observations as I conducted this important scientific research project.

A bowl of bugs on my kitchen counter.

February 26, 2018

6:05 pm – Dumped 18 insects into a bowl, having collected them from thawing water on top of the ice at our prairie.  (No ice axe required, thank you.)  Initial observation: the insects appear to be motionless.  Some are floating, others are submerged.  Water is still very cold.

6:31 pm – Added a little warm water to the bowl.  Some of the insects moved as I dumped the water in, but seemed to settle back into stillness as the water calmed.  Brief movement considered inconclusive as to the status of insects as living or dead.  More data needed.

7:48 pm – Water is about room temperature now.  Wondering if the floating are the same that were floating earlier?  Probably.  A couple stray legs seem to be lying around on the bottom of the bowl.  If those insects are soon to be alive and kicking, it appears they’ll have fewer legs to kick than they had last fall.

A stray leg.

8:33 pm – Of the 18 insects I collected and put in the bowl, 18 still appear to be motionless.  Fighting boredom (me, not the insects).  Must remain vigilant in order to complete this project for my readers.

9:07 pm – Nothing to report.

10:15 pm – I’m pretty sure several of these insects are actually flies, and not aquatic insects at all.  Wondering if I should remove those from the dataset so as not to bias the overall survival rate.

Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.  Oh? What’s it doing?  Nothing.  (Not a funny joke at all.)

10:56 pm – So tired.  Can’t keep my eyes open much longer.  Have decided to call it a night and hope not to lose any insects that reanimate during the night and fly off.  Will cover the bowl to be sure. One of the water boatmen has a certain look in its eye – just waiting for me to go to sleep so it can make its escape?  Better seal the bowl tightly…

February 27, 2018

6:15 am – Woke up and immediately remembered the insects.  Hoped none had eaten each other or escaped.  Scurried out to the kitchen and did a quick count.  All 18 insects accounted for.  None seem to be moving.  Sleeping after a busy night of swimming?  Swished the water around a little, and got some movement, but didn’t seem to be the result of any self-propelling motion by the insects.  Hopes diminishing.

7:10 am – Have decided that maybe the water temperature needs to be higher in order to break diapause.  Added hot water to the bowl.  Awaiting developments.

7:15 am – Trying to fix breakfast and school lunches.  Need counter space.  Re-evaluating this entire project.

7:23 am – Adapted Monty Python sketch running through my head…  “These bugs are no more!  They’ve ceased to be!  They’ve expired and gone to meet their maker!  They’re stiffs!  Bereft of life, they rest in peace!…These are EX-BUGS!”

Figure 1. Number of dead bugs compared to number of live bugs.  Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals.

7:24 am – Ok, I’m calling it.  Experiment over.  These insects are dead, folks.  Of the 18 frozen insects removed from the surface of the ice, 18 died.  This evidence strongly supports the suggestion that insects found embedded near the surface of frozen wetlands are, in fact, dead.  This follows the findings of Helzer (2014) who similarly found a frozen beetle to be dead upon thawing.

Pining for the fjords?  Nope.

Ok?

Ok.  I’m going to clean out that ziplock bag now and get it back in my camera bag.  I don’t want to be left without it when the next scientific opportunity presents itself.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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18 Responses to Thawing Frozen Bugs; The Grand Experiment

  1. Sara McClure says:

    Your observation techniques are so rigorous. But I don’t think you really gave it enough time :)

  2. Thank you for the great post and good laugh!

  3. Connie Spellman says:

    I appreciate your persistence and sense of humor. I do enjoy and learn from your posts!
    Thank you!
    Connie

  4. Noelle Hart says:

    Monty Python reference made my day! And a great example of curious naturalist’s mind at work. :)

  5. Todd Boller says:

    This is one of my favorites! Needed a good laugh today and this article does it. Thanks for your dedication to science!

  6. Diane Wetherbee says:

    Thanks for the laugh on yet another gloomy day in North Texas.

  7. Richard Portman says:

    Well at least you tried. Thanks.

  8. Brohman, Mark says:

    Chris,
    I welcomed your update. I had wondered about their state after reading your past posting. I was rooting for at least one to come back from the dead, but they are no more. As I read your posting, I too had the dead parrot Monty Python skit going through my mind.
    Mark

  9. brucemohn says:

    Glad you tried it and shared the results! Good science. Looked to be mostly water boatmen in the photos, which I would think would be fairly robust. I see them swimming around in the NJ Pine Barrens even in the winter, though have never seen how they deal with freezing.

  10. Patrick says:

    I was wondering whether you would pull out the Miracle Max quote of only being “Mostly Dead”

  11. anastaciast says:

    I wish that you could hear me laughing. and see the tears trickling down my face. I almost made my lip bleed while biting it during the Monty Python skit. In fact this speech to text is having trouble keeping up with me because I’m still laughing!

  12. James McGee says:

    Oh, well … I was hoping for the insects.

    I remember walking on the ice at Holmes Lake in Lincoln as a kid. I picked up a shad on top of the ice thinking it was dead. As soon as I picked it up I quickly realized it was quite alive. It flopped right out of my hand. Upon looking more closely, I realized there were shad frozen in the ice that were still alive. A discovery that seemed rather surreal at the time.

  13. Well thank goodness we have that established, now. I’m with James, above, though… remembering wonderful surprises from childhood.

  14. James C. Trager says:

    Thanks for reporting negative results, thus confirming you are not one of those industry shill scientists.
    I expected at least some of those bugs to be alive, like hemipteran wood frogs, and now I wonder how the species actually does survive the winter?

  15. marianwhit says:

    A+ for determination and inquiry…A++++ for presentation…ROFL.

  16. Ian says:

    Great post.

    I’ve thawed deer hides out that have been in the freezer for two years. When they start to warm up, the ticks crawl off!

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