In February, the world is devoid of ants, at least this part of the
world. It's also devoid of just about all other bugs and cold
blooded animals. On a rare warm, sunny day, when the wind is
still, you might find some snow fleas, or a few gnats or moths. But
by and large, only warm blooded critters are moving about.
This dramatically changes during the sugar season. Long
before most humans are aware, various ants, spiders, moths,
beetles, gnats, bees, and flies return. They either hatch out of eggs,
metamorphose out of cocoons, or simply crawl out of hiding places
where they wintered as adults. Becoming aware of these signs of
spring is a major reason I spend so much time in the sugar bush
helping make maple syrup.
I regard myself as someone quite connected to the annual
rythyms of nature. I observe birds come and go, early buds appear
on pussy willow and witch hazel, star patterns revolve overhead,
and the change in the sun's angle through my window degree by
degree. Well, making maple syrup is one of my strongest
connections to natural cycles. And it's not just the flow of sap
which marks the season for me. It's the bugs! They appear
suddenly, shockingly fast. One day, nothing. The next, POOF!,
moths everywhere. POOF! Spiders. POOF! Ants. Each species
appears on its own day, in an order that has scarcely changed in
thousands of years.
Many of these early risers are dependent on maple sap, which I
join them in partaking. In a frozen, snow covered world, little is
available to sustain small creatures. The snow fleas (not true fleas
or even true insects) find nutrients in the detritus that builds up
atop melting snow around trees. Early flies find food in the small
sun warmed openings of mud on south facing slopes. But other
insects come out to dine on sap.
When maple trees start the flow of sap up through the branches
to their flower buds, they also trigger the flow of animals back into
the waking world. The first moths appear with the first sap,
showing up in the buckets we hang to collect it. Before people
tapped the trees, these bugs would find cracked branches where
sap oozed out. These early moths are big, maybe 3/4 of an inch
long, and quite wooly. I imagine they overwinter as adults,
insulated somewhat by their hairiness.
Soon after appear what my sons call the sap beetles, long thin
black beetles with a bit of orange. A few other odd species pop out
here and there in small numbers, showing up as the others, in the
sap buckets. Next come the spiders, appearing in time to feast on
these earlier arrivals.
Quite late in the maple season, but usually around the first day
of spring, appear finally and dramatically the ants. As I
mentioned, one day no ants. But the next, every tap, bucket, lid,
crack in the bark, broken branch, etc. is crawling with them. It is
quite awe inspiring, awesome and awful - in its intensity.
The ants are a true harbinger of spring. The taste and color of
the sap changes dramatically around the time they appear, as the
hormonal system of the tree floods the buds with what they need to
flower. The ants may like this, but we humans don't. As the taste
and color of the sap, and thus syrup, darken and deepen, we pull
the taps and bring in the buckets. The holes have begun to heal up
anyway by now. And other parts of our lives draw us, reluctantly,
home from the sugar bush.
Anyone hear peepers yet?