Where Do Insects Go in Winter?

Monarch butterfly in flight.

There Are Many Strategies for Surviving Winter

The summer months are filled with the sights and sounds of insects. Cicadas clicking in the evening, bees enjoying flowers and crickets calling along the banks of the Credit River. However, with winter upon us, days are shorter, temperatures are cold and less food is available for wildlife. When these seasonal changes occur, insects (like many of us) do their best to adapt and protect themselves from the harsh winter season.

Different insects have developed unique strategies to survive the winter months. Here’s six ways they do it:

1. Migration

What better way to deal with the cold than to go on vacation to a warmer climate. For example, the monarch butterfly will take flight in the fall to their winter habitat in Mexico.

Monarch butterfly resting on a flower.
Perched monarch butterfly.

2. Hibernation also know as Diapause

Some insects’ internal clocks are triggered by a decrease in daylight hours, signaling to them it’s time to take a pause for a few months and enter a state of dormancy. This means, after finding shelter these insects slow their metabolism, stop growing and use their fuel reserves to survive the winter.

Mosquito on a person’s skin.
Adult mosquito ready to feed after a winter spent in diapause.

3. Produce Antifreeze

Most insects who enter diapause produce special antifreeze proteins and a sugary alcohol substance called glycerol inside their bodies. This strategy helps insects to ‘supercool’ themselves and avoid freezing solid as temperatures drop.

For example, the mourning cloak butterfly will spend winter hiding out in protective crevices such as hollow trees as they supercool. Read more about wintering butterflies and this fascinating strategy from the Audubon Society.

A Mourning cloak butterfly resting on the ground.
The mourning cloak butterfly is a typical first sight of spring.

4. Layer Up

Immature forms of adult insects called larvae and pupae nestle themselves under the protection of leaf litter for shelter, while others bury themselves deep into the soil to stay warm during diapause. This insulated cover acts like a natural blanket.

The hummingbird clearwing moth will spend the winter months as a pupa wrapped in its cocoon, keeping warm under layers of leaves. Then in the spring, it will emerge into its strikingly beautiful adult form.

Hummingbird clearwing moth drinking nectar from a flower.
Hummingbird clearwing moth – Photo Credit: Kyle Swanson

5. Group Huddles

Honeybees will use food energy from their honey and as a large group, they will flutter their wings to generate heat. The queen bee will usually be found in the center of this group huddle, increasing her chances for survival. Sounds like one big warm hug!

6. Overwinter in Water

Compared to cold air temperatures, stream water temperatures remain stable in winter, allowing some small aquatic insects, called benthic macroinvertebrates, to live at the bottom of streams, rivers, lakes, ponds and wetlands. In these waters, they can continue to feed, and remain active, often beneath ice. When temperatures warm up and the ice cover disappears, these young insects emerge into their adult form. Some dragonflies, stoneflies and mayflies use this strategy.

Insect in water.
Giant stonefly overwinters in the stream as an immature nymph – Photo Credit: Kyle Swanson

There are a few things you can do to help insects survive winter:

  • Let your garden grow wild to increase shelter available for these diverse insects, the messier the garden, the better!
  • Leave fallen leaves on the ground. They can provide insects with a warm home for the season. The added layer of leaves helps to insulate the ground for those who may burrow underground in the winter.
  • Don’t tidy up shrubs or perennials and keep some of your grasses tall until early spring. Insects can find shelter among these features.
  • Read about Xerces Society’s Leave the Leaves Campaign.

It’s okay if you’ve already cleared your garden for the season, keep these tips in mind for next year.

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By Chantalle Jacob-Okorn, Watershed Monitoring Technician

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