Climate Change is Messing with Mother Nature’s Timetable

In nature, timing is everything. From the mass migration of monarch butterflies to the simultaneous seminal release of corals to the collective deaths of salmon and cicadas, many species stick to schedules so strict, their habits could be used to mark the seasons.

Unfortunately, more and more evidence suggests that climate change has already begun to shift these timetables.

Some flowers, for example, seem to be adapting more quickly to global warming than the wild bumblebees they rely on for reproduction. The flowers bloom earlier, often before the bees have emerged to transport pollen between them. As a result, the plants produce fewer seeds. If the two can’t sync up, the lockstep dance of pollination that has developed over millennia may unravel over the relatively short course of centuries — or even decades.

Scientists call this occurrence a “phenological mismatch,” but you could simply think of it as bad timing.

Scale insects are small, mostly stationary bugs that suck the life out of trees. But these parasites have parasites of their own. Several species of wasp prey upon scales by drilling into their shells and depositing tiny monster eggs. Once the larva hatches, it lives inside the body of the scale insect, sucking its blood. But here’s the thing: Scale insects seem to thrive under slightly warmer conditions, while wasps fare no better or worse.

Wasps still infect the scales in both cooler and warmer places. In the cooler sites, the parasites’ eggs affected the scales’ ability to produce its own eggs. Call it nature’s way of keeping scale insects from taking over the world. But evidence suggests that higher temps allow scale insects to somehow overcome the wasp’s influence.

This may be due to the fact that the scales hatch earlier in warm conditions. And when that occurs, their other life events move up on the calendar, too: earlier molting, breeding, egg-laying.

As for the wasps, their life cycle appears to remain the same in the heat. They still drill into scale insects (which are now a few days or weeks older than normal), lay their eggs, and leave their young to leech off their host. Everything is as it was before, except for the fact that the wasp larvae no longer seem to compromise the egg production of their hosts.

And what else might be in store  for the birds, the bees, the salmon, and the cicadas — we just don’t know yet. We would be wise to start filling out those calendars in pencil.

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