Winter often seem like a dead period of time in the out of doors. There are no flowers blooming, not many green leaves fluttering in the breeze, and very few insects to buzz and bite. But, rest assured, life is hiding behind loose bark, under a rock, inside a dead flower stem, or buried under the leaf litter, just waiting for Mother Nature to say “come on out, spring is here!”
If we look closely at that dried leaf hanging on a twig we may discover a spicebush silk moth cocoon all wrapped up inside. This pupa can be found on wild cherry, sassafras, tuliptree and sweetgum, as well as spicebush.
If you look on the woodland floor under leaf litter, you might come across a wooly bear caterpillar, as they pupate in the spring in a hairy cocoon and become the Isabella Moth.
Investigate the tips of the wild cherry tree for the dark brown shiny egg cluster of the tent caterpillar. When the larvae hatch they migrate down to a crotch in the tree and make their web nest that shields them at night from the cold spring rains and predators.
The tent caterpillars are a different species entirely from the fall webworm, that makes its sticky web around a cluster of leaves where the larvae eat and pupate. Last years webs are still visible usually near the ends of branches.
Gall insect structures are commonly seen in winter, especially the goldenrod bunch gall, the goldenrod stem gall and the oak apple gall. The gall insects are tiny species of flies, gnats, moths, beetles or wasps (Cynipidea). They all are host specific and indeed, choose a particular part of the host plant on which to live. They have the ability of inducing the plant to grow a swelling around the larva, apparently by the introduction of hormones. These swellings can be round, oval, fuzzy, spiny, cone-shaped or flower-like, and appear on the stem, leaf vein or petiole or roots. Galls do not really harm the plant. Some galls produce an abundance of “nectar”(a honey secretion) that attracts honey ants and honey bees. A few galls are able to produce 63% carbohydrates and over 9 % protein and was once used as animal feed. One species of gall insect is necessary for the pollination of commercial figs, and the European Aleppo oak gall was once used by the US government to make a permanent dye for official documents.
If you find a gall and it doesn't have a small hole in it, place it in a jar and watch for the exodus of the tiny insect responsible for this fascinating phenomenon. Occasionally there may be other small insects that have taken advantage of an empty winter “apartment.”