October 24, 2012By Nicole Juday
This will probably be our last conversation about insects for awhile. Standing outside somewhere sheltered on a warm, sunny afternoon, the chirp of crickets is still audible. But instead of the rapid fire, speed-metal of August, the October song is a faint, sad waltz.
Some bumblebees are still out. Only the queen survives the winter, and the colony is in the process of dwindling. Male bumblebees, having outlived their usefulness, are banished from the underground nest. They spend fair nights camping out in the center of flowers, perfectly still until the slanted morning sunlight dries the dew off of their fur and warms them up enough to fly.
Honeybees are more abundant. A surprising number of flowers are still in bloom, and honeybees take advantage of dry Indian summer weather to make the last pollen runs before they head into the hive for the winter. Like the bumblebees, the males, called drones, have already been forced out. They do no work for the colony, existing only for the possibility of crossing paths with a virgin queen on her nuptial flight. The price of this sybaritic life of leisure is banishment into the elements once cold weather arrives. The remaining colony stops raising new bees, which would be hard to support on the stored food that must last until the dandelions return. Instead, a small colony of survivor workers surround the precious queen. They will beat their wings constantly all winter long, generating enough heat to keep her warm.
Praying Mantids have already made their acorn-sized brown egg sacs, which resemble degrading industrial foam glued onto plant stems. Whether the female consumes the male after their September mating is up for debate, but any mantis that survives the wedding will hang around the garden until it freezes to death, often around Thanksgiving. A praying mantis can be kept alive indoors for several more months than it would survive outside, as long as there is a supply of flying insects.
And of the butterflies, just a few late monarchs flutter against the blue October sky. The painted ladies have flown south, and the swallowtails have simply disappeared, leaving their papery grey chrysalises to bear witness throughout the coming winter before magically hatching sometime late next spring.