The tundra is one of the last places you expect to find insects because it is so barren and cold. It isn’t like a wildflower meadow rich in vegetation where all kinds of species could play their part. However, there is more insect life up there than you might think.
Dragonflies, mosquitoes, moths, and even bumblebees are some insects that can survive in the tundra. Insects can adapt by staying frozen in their larval stage before hatching. Dark colors absorb more sunlight and warmth, and rapid movement generates heat.
There are two possible ways for insect species to survive the winter. Some insect species don’t live long enough to see winter in their adult form. Instead, the eggs will hatch in the spring, the larval forms will develop into adults over an appropriate time frame, and then they will become adults. In many cases, these larval stages can last for years.
For example, a dragonfly larva can survive at the bottom of a pond for four years, safe from freezing temperatures and danger, and then emerge to become an adult. That adult will only survive for a few months. At this time, they need to mate and lay their eggs at a suitable breeding site. They don’t need to be able to survive the cold in this adult form.
Other species that do live for longer as adults will hibernate in the winter. If there is little chance of them surviving the cold, they will find a warm place to shelter and remain dormant there until spring. There are cases of insects coming out too early in false springs. Butterflies may do this in garden sheds and outbuildings, while bees can shelter in burrows.
Insects in the tundra can go through a similar yearly cycle, where the young hatch and develop in spring. The adults live a short time before laying the next generation, or they can find a suitable place to hibernate. The problem is that winters in the tundra are much colder and longer. So, these insects have to be better prepared.
Some insects in the tundra have adapted to survive with extreme cold, while others have found ways to warm themselves up.
One of the essential adaptations in tundra insects is the ability to endure extreme temperatures. They need to go about their usual routines without any risk of freezing. But, this is easier said than done in a frozen landscape. Many creatures can survive intense drops in temperature and reach a state of suspended animation as needed. A great example of one of the hardier Alaskan species is the gall wasp larvae, which were found to endure temperatures of -60F.
When it comes to pollinators and flying insects, one of the most interesting is the Arctic bumblebee.
Bees aren’t creatures you would expect to see up in the coldest areas of Alaska. But, this little bee is a curious exception. They will emerge from hibernation in the spring and survive on nectar from flowers. The queens do so much earlier than the workers.
While these bees look like other bumblebees, some minor adaptations help them in these colder regions. The first is that they are a little hairier, allowing them to trap air in their fur for better insulation. The second is that they can “shiver,” like mammals, to keep warm. They use their strong flight muscles to generate heat without too much effort. This keeps them comfortable and active until it is time to hibernate again.
Arctic Woolly Bear Moth
There is also a moth species found in some parts of the Canadian arctic and Russia. This species has a typical lifecycle, with the adults emerging in late spring, mating, laying their eggs, and dying around two weeks later. What makes this species interesting is that the caterpillar has a clever survival strategy. It hatches from the egg and stays frozen over the winter under its oversized hairy coat. It then thaws out, ready for the next stage of the lifecycle.
Of course, we can’t talk about the insects of the tundra without talking about mosquitoes.
Mosquitoes aren’t just found in the hot and humid swamps of the southern states. You can also find them in significant numbers in colder regions. It all depends on the species and their relevant adaptations. In the North American tundra, some species have evolved to handle cold temperatures with great ease. They have glycerol in their blood that works as a form of antifreeze. Some species are much like those further south, with males feeding on the nectar of available flowers and females on the blood of large mammals like caribou. However, some species have evolved not to rely on blood at all.
How Do Darker Colors Help?
Another exciting adaptation that you often see with these insects in the tundra is that they are darker in color. This is also true for some of the arachnid species in the region. The idea here is that this pigmentation allows them to absorb more sunlight and warmth. This will then help them stay active in finding food, finding mates, or defending their territory.
Many of these darker insects are ground-dwelling creatures. These ground beetles are just as important as flying pollinators in dealing with dead matter and maintaining the landscape’s health. In turn, a juicy beetle becomes a snack for any insectivores in the area. Some ground-dwelling insects will feed on the plentiful moss and lichen, which caribou also love. Then you will find the little weevil that deals with dead leaves and other plant matter.
Insects are everywhere in the world in some form. Insect life is essential for the health and development of all ecosystems, including the tundra. It might be more challenging for species to survive here. But, those that have adapted to the cold can live in ways similar to southern species. This means you can find beetles, moths, bees, mosquitoes, and more in the North American Arctic tundra.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.