Winter Habitat and Protection Among Leaf Litter

A wheelbarrow filled with loose leaves in a garden.

Insects that Overwinter in Leaf Litter

Aside from saving our backs from strain, there are plenty of benefits to removing the task of racking leaves from our fall gardening to-do list. However, who are we leaving the leaves for? Here are three insect species that appreciate autumn leaves staying on the ground.

Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele)

The caterpillars of great spangled fritillary butterflies eat the leaves of native violets. Great spangled fritillary females lay their eggs near, but usually not on, violets. This is because the caterpillars don’t eat after they emerge from the egg, instead they bury themselves in the leaf litter to spend the winter. They then feed once it warms up in the spring and the violets start growing.

A four-petaled flower.
The sweet white violet grows from six to 12 inches high and the lower petals have purple veins.

Most people never see great spangled fritillary caterpillars. They do all their feeding at night and go back to the leaf litter to hide during the day. Their black body and orange spike coloring is perfect for camouflaging into surrounding leaf litter.

A caterpillar crawling across small rocks.
The great spangled fritillary is native to Canada.

Spotted Pink Lady Beetle (Coleomegilla maculata)

The spotted pink lady is the most seen native lady beetle in the Credit River Watershed. They are skilled predators of aphids and one of the first lady beetles you see in the spring.

An insect sitting on a flower.
The spotted pink lady is about six millimetres long.

Like most lady beetles, spotted pink lady beetles overwinter in groups of adults. Occasionally, you will see different lady beetle species congregating together. The benefits of spending the winter together seems to lead to higher survival. A large group of red and black beetles does a better job of scaring off predators than a single beetle on its own.

A group of insects scattered across a fallen leaf.
Groups of lady beetles gather and get ready to hibernate in the fall

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe)

Hummingbird clearwing moths are so striking as adults, that it’s easy to forget there are other parts of their life cycle. As their name implies, these moths have a lot in common with hummingbirds – they look, sound and behave like the fast, tiny birds. You might catch an adult hummingbird moth buzzing around bee balm in the summer, drinking nectar from the flowers with their long tongues.

A close-up of a moth drinking nectar from a flower.
Adult clearwing moths are most active during the hottest parts of the day but remain active until sunset.

Before they turn into adults, clearwing moths spend the summer as green caterpillars munching on leaves. They will drop to the ground and wander in search of a protected place in the leaf litter to pupate. They spin a silk cocoon and then transform inside the cocoon from a caterpillar to a pupa.

A caterpillar hanging upside down on a leaf.
Hummingbird clearwing caterpillars eat the leaves of many types of trees and shrubs, including hawthorns, honeysuckles, viburnums and cherries.

Life is busy. Don’t feel guilty about taking the task of raking the leaves off your to-do list! You’re not being lazy – you’re being a good friend to the insects we need in the environment.

Learn more about how insects use leaves for food and shelter through the Leave the Leaves campaign, developed by Xerces Society – a science-based nonprofit organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat.

Learn more about insects in the Credit River Watershed. Do you have questions about leaf litter or insects? Connect with us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

By Laura Timms, Senior Specialist, Natural Heritage Management

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