June Bugs

In St. Louis, the June Bug is an annual summer visitor. When they first arrive, they startle you tapping on the window. They whack and crack on the glass until you get up to see who’s at the door; then you remember the yearly summer flight of these brown beetles.

These bugs are harmless to humans but unpopular nonetheless. In large numbers, they can damage lawns or crops. They make people squirm when they bombard porchlights and screen doors. Their armored little bodies and thorny little legs give them an unsettling prehistoric look.

But have no doubt: they aren’t going anywhere. They were here long before we were. Every year, they will announce their arrival with a buzz straight into a brick wall. And they’ll depart in a lifeless parade, floating down the lazy river and into the filters of the community pool.

The Lightning Bugs Arrive

The nights, too, are warm now, and that brings the promise of life at its swarming peak. The bugs now return in great numbers. Bugs are cold-blooded, so some remain inactive when it’s under 50 degrees. With the chill is gone from the air, all creatures are safe to come out.

Bugs tend to be unwelcome at human affairs, but there are a few for whom we make exceptions. The firefly is one of these special few. Who can resist the beauty of the lightning bugs floating on the mist of a sticky summer night?

Long before they emerge to light up your backyard, lightning bugs are doing good deeds. Firefly larvae–glowworms–are carnivorous, so they feed on the pests and grubs that would eat up our gardens. It’s been said that when they do emerge as adults, it’s safe to plant warm-weather crops. The fireflies know that the cold snaps are over.

Lightning bugs love the humid weather that St. Louis summers are so well-known for. The stickier the night, the more fireflies you’re likely to see. And after a wet spring like this one, they tend to come out on the early side. Some have already been out and about in the daylight, just crawling around and getting familiar with their new world. They ought to be arriving in numbers soon, here to set our backyards twinkling. Haven’t they been there for every summer you can remember? Something about it sets your heart beating. They are tiny miracles, little glowing bugs that embody, perhaps more than any other creature, that simple magic of summer.

Blackberry Winter

Have you heard of a blackberry winter? It’s the name for an out-of-place rush of cold that comes late in the spring to make sure you haven’t forgotten what it feels like. Blackberry winter is spring’s equivalent to autumn’s “Indian summer.” It’s named after the blackberry blossoms that will wither in this unexpected cold.

It has other names, too, depending on who you ask. Some call it “linsey-woolsey britches winter,” and they won’t pack away their long underwear ’til it shows its face and passes. It’s safe to say—to hope—that this wet and shivery past weekend was our blackberry winter, and the cold is behind us once and for all.

The animals seem to think so. As the weeks have grown warmer, the babies have started arriving. Young squirrels are huddled up in their nests, many still too feeble to climb. Opossums ride along safely in their mothers’ pouches. Baby robins are everywhere, learning to fly. Foxes are still tucked away in their dens, as baby rabbits are in theirs. In the coming weeks they’ll all emerge with confidence, ready to take on the world. Ready to live, to eat, and to avoid getting eaten.

For now, most still depend on their mothers. But blackberry winter is past. Close quarters aren’t so cozy when it’s hot outside. It’s time now for us to put away our sweaters and long underwear, time for the critters to step out into the world they’ll learn to live in. This is the moment their mothers have been waiting for all winter long. It’s the moment that millions of years of their species’ survival has come to: the beginning of new lives.

The Last Frost

April 15th is the average last frost in St. Louis. But we know that date is no promise. In the past couple weeks, the temperature sank close to freezing more than once. April rains are unpredictable, sometimes bringing in cold; other times warmth. Days drop 30 degrees without warning.

But the winds are changing. More and more often, the warmth sticks around for awhile. The weather blows over, defying forecasts for thunder and rain. You start to feel bold enough to leave the house without a jacket.

Those who plant peppers, okra, or other heat-loving plants find a little more certainty at the end of April. The seeds of these plants can’t survive the cold and shouldn’t be planted outside until two weeks after the average last frost. With April 15th two weeks behind us, we have made it. And it’s not just the gardeners that know it—every creature has figured out that it’s safe to come out. Early blooming trees like magnolias have already lost their blossoms to the green of their leaves. The bees are back and buzzing in the sun. Birds we only see in springtime are passing through now on their way back up North. Azaleas are in full bloom.

This is spring as we dream of it through winter. Not the uncertain spring of March and April—the flowering, bustling, breezy spring of May.

Frozen Frogs

In the rain and snow, a hush seems to fall over the neighborhoods. The leaves aren’t there to rustle in the breezes, and the stray cats and little squirrels hide away. The people, too, are huddled in their dens, curled up in some quiet corner.

There’s one particular critter who hides especially well: the spring peeper. These frogs are native to Missouri, and they’re strange creatures. They snuggle into winter shelters of leaf piles, logs, and tree trunks, and won’t make a sound all winter. Along with a handful of other frog species, the spring peeper survives winter by going completely dormant–and even freezing through.

During their frozen slumber, the spring peeper is saved only by glycogen, a natural sugar in the frogs’ blood that acts as an antifreeze. This is just enough to keep ice crystals from forming in their vital organs. Its breath and heart have slowed to an almost undetectable rate, and the energy needed to keep these systems running at all comes from the same sugar. It ferments in their bodies and provides just enough energy to keep them alive.

The spring peeper runs out of glycogen stores right around the time that the first hint of warmth creeps into the air. So in the last days of winter, the spring peeper will miraculously thaw and awaken like the pet project of some mad scientist. This is where it gets its name: in that season of uncertainty, halfway between winter and spring, it emerges from its slumber and utters its call—a sequence of short peeps. The call of the spring peeper is said to be a sure sign that winter is relinquishing its bitter grip, and spring is on the way.

In the meantime, they sleep alongside the warmblooded hibernators in their shelters, waiting. And we wonder at a tiny frog who, for all our strength and smarts and stamina, would outlast us on a cold winter night.

The Birds That Stick Out Winter

Cold mornings are quiet enough that your ears wake up at the sound of your feet crunching the frost on the grass. The usual morning ruckus of rustling rodents and twittering birds and the foot-thud of early morning joggers has gone. Here in the city, you hear only the wind zipping through the tree branches and the distant rush of the nearest highway. If you stand still and watch your breath form a cloud in front of you, you’ll start to think you can hear the sound of those tiny crystals fizzling out into the air.

The stillness might make you feel as though all the life has rushed out of the city. But really St. Louis is just welcoming a lively flock of wintertime guests. A number of birds that spend their summers in the northern United States and Canada are just now coming to town. Some of the more common visitors are the dark-eyed juncos, mallards, common mergansers, tree sparrows, fox sparrows, white crowned sparrows, golden-crowned kinglets, and cedar waxwings. Wintertime is your chance to catch a glimpse of these visitors.

Even the birds who were here with us through the balmy spring and summer have not all gone. Some birds stay in Missouri year-round, taking a chance on unpredictable St. Louis winters. They aren’t singing much anymore, but if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ve still got a good chance of seeing blue jays, mourning doves, song sparrows, tufted titmice, chickadees, American goldfinches, northern mockingbirds, white-breasted nuthatches, and, of course, the bright red cardinals, who will be the first to sing again in February. These are the friends that stay and stick out the winter along with us.

You might wonder how in the world these tiny creatures survive the bitter cold in their outdoor homes, and in fact we’ve stolen from them one of our best ideas for keeping warm: down coats and comforters. Feathers make great insulation, and birds maximize that effect when they fluff themselves into fat little snowballs. Feathers trap the body heat they make, and by puffing up like that, they create more air pockets between their feathers where extra heat can be trapped. That’s why in wintertime you always see them with their tiny heads tucked into their ruffled bodies, looking just mildly annoyed as they stand stubbornly steadfast in the bitter wind.

If you want to lend a hand to the birds this winter, you can keep food and fresh water for them in your yard, making sure to melt the water for them when it freezes. To attract a variety of birds, you should have a mix of nuts, seeds, and fruits. Sunflower seeds are a popular choice across species. You can also have some food hanging and other food just scattered, since some birds prefer to feed on the ground while others do not. And, on especially cold days when you pull out your downy winter coat, give a nod of acknowledgement to the birds you pass by on your walk to the bus stop.

Time to Rest

With Thanksgiving weekend behind us, a sense of pause falls over the city. While you sat on the couch recovering from your feast, you might have looked out the window and noticed the browns, blues, and deep golds that have finally spread across the landscape. It doesn’t feel quite like winter yet. The cold, windy nights still give way to the warmth of the sun most afternoons. But the colors tell us it’s time to get ready for the cold to come.

It’s during these last days of November that mammals seek winter shelters. In Missouri, we’ve got a handful hibernators: bats, groundhogs, chipmunks, and certain kinds of mice and squirrels are falling fast asleep and won’t wake up ’til springtime. During this strange coma, their heart rate will drop, their body temperature will dwindle, and their metabolism will slow. They can nod off all through the winter without waking up to eat. Skunks turn in for the season too, but instead of full-on hibernation, they fall into a lighter sleep called torpor. Skunks cuddle close in their dens with a handful of their kin, but unlike animals in full hibernation, a skunk is liable to get a move on every now and then to scrounge up a snack. Bears are in torpor mode, too. They wake up easily so that they can nurse and protect their cubs, which are born in their mothers’ dens during wintertime. They won’t go looking for food, though—they live off of their body fat all winter long.

For the plants, too, it is finally time to be still. Leafless grey trees and stiff yellow shrubs have us feeling gloomy, gazing out the window like we’re looking at a bleak display of decay. We think of death when really we should be admiring a landscape at peace in its maturity. The plants have spread their seed and taken in all the nutrients they need to pull through the winter. They’ve dropped their leaves to create a new wealth of fertility in the soil at their roots. Next spring they’ll have to start all over again. But for now, the frenzy of growth is over. Naked and relieved of the burden of leaves, it is time for the trees to rest.

And we will join the winter rest soon. A trip to the grocery store will hint to you that the city folk are nearly ready to settle in to their dens, too. The old ladies at the checkout send long lines of canned soup parading down the belt to the cashier. The young couples with drafty apartments are buying those window-sealing shrink film kits. A mother pretends not to see the reindeer cookies her daughter snuck into the grocery cart. On Sunday, an old man with his arms crossed stared for a long time at the greenery for sale outside Schnucks. After serious consideration, he slowly put a wreath in his cart, apparently deciding it was no longer too early to buy a Christmas decoration. The time to find warmth and rest has arrived.