Even in winter bugs are out at Lake Tahoe

Laney Griffo
Despite looking like fleas, snow fleas are herbivores and don’t bite.

Where do bugs go in the winter? Most disappear … but not all of them.

Have you ever looked at fresh snow and atop the fluffy surface and saw little black dots? Assuming it is dirt, you almost peer away, until the little dots begin to move and jump on the snow … These are snow bugs.

All the tiny, black dots are snow bugs.

Bugs and insects are ectothermic, meaning their internal temperature fluctuates according to its surroundings.

When winter hits in Tahoe, different bugs utilize a variety of strategies to withstand the winter, typically disappearing from sight. For example, certain species of dragonfly migrate away from the cold temperatures to a warmer location. Other insects, such as the Western Yellow Jacket, die off, except for the queen who overwinters locally by burying herself in the ground.

Many insects such as the clear-winged grasshopper will expire shortly after reproducing, leaving only their eggs in the ground to overwinter and when spring comes, the eggs hatch and the cycle will begin once again.

On the contrary, snow bugs are active year round and are best found after a snowfall.

According to Sarah Hockensmith, outreach director for the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science, “two species of snow bugs in the Lake Tahoe Basin include scorpionflies and snowfleas, but despite their scary names, they are of no danger to humans nor do they have any relation to scorpions or fleas.”

So why the frightening names? Hockensmith said, “it’s quite simple; the back abdomen of male scorpionflies curves up like a scorpion’s tail, but without a stinger. Snowfleas jump really high, similarly to actual fleas, however they don’t use their legs to jump. Instead, they have a springtail-like tail structure called a furcula that propels them off the ground.”

Snowbugs have unique adaptations, giving them the ability to stay active during the winter. They produce an antifreeze agent, which allows them to survive in cold temperatures.

Scorpionflies also have long legs that keep their bodies from touching the cold ground. These herbivores feed on fungal spores, mosses, and algae. They are often found near the base of trees and are great to have in the yard to help break down organic material.

Scorpionflies have long legs to keep their bodies off of the snow.

According to Hockensmith, not only do snowbugs break down organic material, but they are also an important food source for other animals that are active during the winter. She said, “the black body of a snow bug contrasting against the white snow makes it easier for predators to see.”

Although small, they are an important source of protein for organisms such as birds and fish that need this caloric energy boost in the cold winter months. Therefore, it is important to ask questions like ‘How does a limited snowpack affect snow bugs, as bugs are a key foundation for most food chains, even in the winter.’

While we still have snow this year, be sure to look for these fascinating bugs sprinkled atop the snow. More often than not, looking more closely at nature will open a door of thought, resulting in a deeper appreciation of our local natural history.

If you want to learn more about your local flora and fauna, consider connecting with your local naturalists at TINS. You can visit their website at

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