Frozen Beetles: The Mystery Continues

Those of you who have followed this blog for a long time might remember that I’ve speculated several times about the phenomenon of finding various insects frozen in the ice on wetlands and ponds. About two years ago, I even conducted a rigorous (?) scientific experiment to see whether those insects were dead or just temporarily frozen. You can revisit that post here, if you’re interested. Spoiler – they were most definitely dead, but I had fun with the analysis anyway.

As a result of my continued exploration of this topic, I think I can confidently say that most insects – especially terrestrial insects – found frozen in wetlands and ponds are dead. But why and how they got there is still uncertain. Today, I added to that uncertainty.

I stopped for a quick visit at a frozen wetland in one of our relatively recent prairie/wetland restorations. It had been warm over the weekend, and then had fallen back below freezing during the early part of this week. As a result, I figured there might be some interesting patterns in the ice. This is what passes for entertainment in my world.

This large beetle was waiting for me when I arrived at the frozen wetland today.

Shortly after arriving, I spotted a big black beetle – head down and half encased in ice. Based on how often I see frozen insects in the ice, that wasn’t a big surprise. What’s more interesting is that I’ve visited this same wetland maybe a half dozen times over the last couple months. During that time, I’ve explored its frozen surface pretty extensively and have not seen a single frozen insect. Today, I found numerous frozen insects of various species, along with quite a few snail shells. Why now?

My first thought was that maybe the insects had been frozen in the lower layers of the ice for a while, but had just been revealed now because of the melting that happened over the weekend. That doesn’t make any sense, though, because I’ve watched the surface of this same wetland swale freeze and thaw several times this winter. I saw a lot of grass seeds on the ice today too – especially from prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) – which I assume was a result of yesterday’s winds. Maybe the insects had been lying dead on the edge of the wetland and were blown onto the ice by those same winds. But, if so, why hadn’t I seen them at other times during the winter after other windy days?

I also found this cute little green beetle.
This isopod (aka sow bug, roly poly) was encased in ice next to some frozen bubbles.

I suppose it’s possible that the insects were overwintering nearby in thatch or below ground and then ‘woke up’ for a while during the warm weekend. If so, they could easily have wandered out onto the melting ice and gotten stuck, either in pools of melt water or by overnight refreezing. In fact, this is my best hypothesis. But it still doesn’t explain why I haven’t seen insects on previous visits because we’ve had plenty of warm days followed by cold snaps.

I don’t get it. But, as I’ve said many times before, there are plenty of other things I don’t understand about prairies, wetlands, and the species that live in them. It’s part of why I continue to enjoy exploring them. And since there’s no possibility that I’ll ever learn everything there is to learn about this ecosystem, I guess I’ll get to keep happily wandering around them for many more years – being extra careful not to get stuck out on the ice…

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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.

11 thoughts on “Frozen Beetles: The Mystery Continues

  1. I picked up quite a few spiders when driving around our Indiana prairies during Monday’s warm spell. It’s snowing now so hopefully they found a warm spot to hunker down instead of freezing like these poor critters.

    • I’ve seen small spiders out on prairies in temperatures well below freezing. Some things actually like the cold temperatures. Midges are commonly flying around when it is much below freezing.

  2. On Feb 2, 2020 it was 72F here in Colorado Springs (Black Forest). I opened the greenhouse doors. Had a honeybee in the greenhouse within the hour. Probably 30 of them by mid afternoon. I’ve had the greenhouse doors open in 60+ degree weather with no honeybees. I’ve got peppers, tomatoes, arugula and nasturtiums blooming, and have had for several weeks. I’m guessing there’s a temperature threshold that gets various insects moving. The beetles got moving, ended up on ice that cooled them enough to slow or prohibit movement. I’m hoping all the honeybees got back to their hive safely. The temp was 24 F on the 3rd.

  3. I am a recent subscriber to your blog – I read something about a roadside wildflowers at full speed guide on Colossal… The way you write about and photograph prairies and wetlands expresses almost exactly how I feel (and attempt to photograph but don’t really write) about the forests that I manage, and nature more generally. Thank you!

  4. Second beetle (green) is an aquatic species, but I’m blanking on whether it is a dytiscid or a hydrophilid. Too much anesthesia will do that to a person…

    Beetles are active under snow. I don’t know this from personal experience. An entomologist friend of mine specializes in Scarabeidae and she found that her subjects were visiting dung piles that she had tagged. I have found scarabs out and about on relatively mild winter days and the first beetle you photoed looks like it might be one of those.

  5. I found frozen gecko like creature frozen on my sidewalk. We had warmer weather the day before and then freezing. I also was puzzled how he managed to get caught out in the cold?

    On Wed, Feb 5, 2020 at 4:57 PM The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: ” Those of you who have followed this blog for a long > time might remember that I’ve speculated several times about the phenomenon > of finding various insects frozen in the ice on wetlands and ponds. About > two years ago, I even conducted a rigorous (?) scie” >

  6. Chris some one mention the book by Bernd Heinrich winter world I have a copy if you would like to read it. It’s a good read even an old welder can under stand it the way he wrights

  7. Pingback: Photos of the Week – February 7, 2020 | The Prairie Ecologist

  8. lots of fishing spiders active on the ice this winter here in mid coast Maine. a frozen Water boatman as well. I have posted photos of both on Instagram @baldfulmar . had not noticed in prior years. like your posts

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