butterfly in winter

What Happens To Yard Insects in the Wintertime

There is More to Winter Than Just Cold Weather! 

The changing of seasons from fall to winter brings about a drastic shift in the ecosystem of your backyard. As temperatures drop, insects adapt in various ways to survive the harsh conditions. Some insects hibernate, others migrate, while some continue their life cycle under the snow. I thought it would be good to explore what happens in the fascinating world of yard insects during wintertime.

The Winter Survival Strategies of Insects

Insects employ various strategies to cope with winter. These include hibernation, diapause (a state of suspended development), migration, and overwintering as eggs, larvae, pupae, or adults.

When I think of hibernation, I think of a bear that goes into a den or cave in the winter, and insects are kind of like that.  Many insects, like ladybugs and cluster flies, hibernate in protected areas such as tree bark crevices or inside homes. They enter a dormant state, reducing their metabolic activity significantly to conserve energy.  Insects are some of the most adaptable creatures on Earth, with the ability to survive in a wide range of environments. One of their most remarkable survival strategies is hibernation, a state of dormancy that allows them to endure the harsh conditions of winter.

As temperatures begin to drop in fall, many insects start preparing for hibernation. They seek out protected areas, such as under tree bark, inside logs, or in the soil, where they can remain relatively insulated from the cold. Some insects, like certain species of ladybugs and butterflies, even find their way into homes and buildings to overwinter.

During hibernation, insects enter a state of diapause, a form of dormancy that is not merely a deep sleep but a significant slowdown of their metabolic processes. Their heart rate, respiration, and temperature drop dramatically, conserving energy and reducing the need for food intake. This physiological change is often triggered by environmental signals, such as decreasing daylight hours and falling temperatures.

Interestingly, many insects produce glycerol, a type of alcohol that acts as an antifreeze, preventing the water in their cells from freezing solid. This natural antifreeze allows insects like the Arctic woolly bear caterpillar to survive even when temperatures plunge below freezing.

Insects remain in this dormant state throughout winter, re-emerging in spring when temperatures rise again. This cycle allows them to conserve energy and resources during the lean winter months, ensuring their survival until food becomes plentiful again.

Insect hibernation is a fascinating adaptation to the challenges of winter. It's a testament to the resilience of these small creatures, demonstrating their incredible capacity to endure and thrive amidst the harshest conditions.

I mentioned diapause above and thought it would be beneficial to dig into what actually happens during that period.  Certain insects like mosquitoes, ticks, and some species of beetles undergo diapause. It's a state of suspended development that allows them to survive unfavorable environmental conditions.  Diapause is a state of dormancy that insects and other animals undergo in response to adverse environmental conditions. It's a delay in development that allows the organism to survive periods of harsh conditions such as winter or drought.

During diapause, the metabolic activity of the insect significantly reduces. This includes a decrease in heart rate, respiration, and temperature which helps in conserving energy and reducing the need for food intake

This period of suspended development is not just a deep sleep, but a complex physiological process controlled by hormonal and genetic factors It involves adaptive physiological changes that are predetermined and genetically programmed Diapause is characterized by enhanced stress resistance, reduced metabolism, and increased longevity

In many hibernating arthropods, diapause is a state of arrested growth or reproduction It differs from quiescence in that it is a dynamic state of decelerated or arrested morphological development

The onset of diapause is often triggered by environmental cues, such as shortening daylight hours, falling temperatures, or plants dying back. The organism then reactivates development via external signals when the environmental conditions become favorable again

I hope this explains diapause and enlightens you a bit, basically it is a fascinating survival strategy that allows insects and other organisms to endure and thrive amidst adverse conditions.

Some insects, like the Monarch butterfly, are forced to migrate to warmer climates for the winter. They return when temperatures rise again in their original habitats.  Migration is a fascinating natural phenomenon where animals, including many species of birds, insects, and mammals, move from one habitat to another. This movement is often seasonal, driven by changes in food availability, weather, or breeding needs.  My wife loves hummingbirds and actually has many that return every day during the spring and summer to feed on her sweet juices she puts out for them.  

During migration, animals travel vast distances, often navigating with incredible precision. They use a variety of methods to find their way, including the Earth's magnetic field, the position of the sun or stars, landmarks, and even smells.

Here's what typically happens during animal migration:

Preparation: Prior to migration, many animals undergo physiological changes to prepare for the journey. Birds, for example, will eat more to store energy in the form of fat. Some birds can almost double their body weight during this stage.

Travel: The actual journey can be grueling. Migrating animals often travel non-stop for days or even weeks, covering thousands of miles. The Arctic tern, for instance, migrates from its Arctic breeding grounds to the Antarctic and back each year, a round trip of about 25,000 miles.  A hummingbird usually flies around 25 miles a day, but when going over the gulf of Mexico, they are forced to fly 500 miles. 

Navigation: Animals use various techniques to navigate during migration. Birds and sea turtles, for instance, have been found to use Earth's magnetic field to guide their direction. Others use visual landmarks, celestial bodies, or even the smell of the environment to navigate.

Arrival and Adaptation: Once they reach their destination, migrating animals must adapt to new conditions, find food and shelter, and, in many cases, breed. After the breeding season or when the food sources dwindle or the weather becomes harsh again, they will start their return journey.

Return Journey: After spending time at their destination, animals will once again prepare for the return journey. This cycle continues year after year, with many animals returning to the exact same nesting and breeding sites.

Migration is a risky endeavor, with hazards ranging from harsh weather conditions and predators to human-made obstacles like buildings and wind turbines. Despite these challenges, migration is a key survival strategy for many species, allowing them to exploit resources in different environments at different times of the year.  Just like any animal or insect, hummingbirds are vulnerable to ingesting and absorbing pesticides and fertilizersTake caution when spraying fertilizers on plants that hummingbirds frequent to avoid the foliage or when using chemicals to control insects or weeds, make sure you do it in a way that won't hurt your little guests. Avoid spraying near open sources of water or near your hummingbird feeder.

Overwintering: Insects like the Emerald Ash Borer beetle overwinter in various life stages, depending on their species and the climate of their habitat. Some overwinter as eggs, larvae, pupae, or adults, often hiding under leaf litter, soil, or snow. Overwintering is a process used by insects to survive the harsh cold temperatures of winter. During overwintering, insects enter a state of dormancy, similar to hibernation, where their metabolic processes significantly slow down.

Some insects overwinter as adults, such as ladybird beetles (ladybugs), cluster flies, elm leaf beetles, and boxelder bugs. They seek out protected locations, like under tree bark or inside buildings, to stay insulated from the cold.

Other insects overwinter in different life stages. For example, some nymphs of dragonflies, mayflies, and stoneflies live in the waters of ponds and streams throughout winter.  Certain insects even die off completely during the winter, but their species survive through the eggs they've left behind.

Insects survival during the winter can also depend on the specific lower lethal temperature, which varies among species. If the temperature drops below this threshold, the insects will die. To prevent freezing, many insects produce glycerol, a type of alcohol that acts as an antifreeze, preventing the water in their cells from freezing solid.

Insects either "escape in space," which means they migrate to warmer areas, or they "escape in time," which means they become dormant until conditions improve. When spring arrives and temperatures increase, these overwintering insects wake up from their dormant state and resume their normal activities. Insect overwintering is a fascinating survival strategy that allows them to endure the harsh conditions of winter and ensure the continuation of their species.

Common Yard Insects in Winter

Even as winter takes hold, you can still find a variety of insects in your yard. Here are a few examples:

Snow Fleas: Despite their name, snow fleas are not actual fleas. They are springtails that become active during winter. You can often see them on the surface of the snow on warm winter days, where they feed on decaying organic matter.  

springtail bug

Winter Stoneflies: These insects are among the few that remain active during winter. They are found near streams and rivers where their nymphs live under rocks. Adults emerge in late winter or early spring to mate and lay eggs.

Bark Beetles: These beetles burrow into tree bark for the winter, where they can remain active at temperatures just above freezing. They can cause significant damage to trees, especially if the tree is already stressed or diseased.

Woolly Bear Caterpillars: Known for their distinctive black and brown bands, these caterpillars overwinter as larvae. They have a unique ability to freeze solid during winter, with their vital organs protected by a natural antifreeze.  There are a lot of people that believe seeing a Woolly Bear means an early winter.  

Woolly bear caterpillar

Controlling Winter Yard Insects

While most winter insects are harmless, some can cause damage to your yard. Here are some tips to control these pests:

Proper Yard Cleanup: Regular cleanup of fallen leaves and debris can eliminate potential hiding spots for insects. It's also advisable to prune any branches that touch your home to prevent insects from getting inside.

Use of Insecticides: If an infestation is severe, consider using insecticides. Always choose eco-friendly options and follow instructions to avoid harming beneficial insects and the environment.

person spraying

Professional Pest Control: For persistent or extensive infestations, it might be necessary to hire a professional pest control service. They can provide effective, targeted treatment while minimizing harm to non-target species.

The world of yard insects in wintertime is a fascinating one. Knowing more about these creatures and their survival strategies can help us appreciate their role in the ecosystem and manage them effectively in our yards. Even in the depths of winter, life continues in remarkable and resilient ways.

Remember, insects aren't just pests. They play vital roles in pollination, decomposition, and as a food source for other wildlife. So next time you notice those tiny footprints on the snow or spot a beetle on a tree, take a moment to appreciate these tiny winter warriors, then send em’ packin’ LOL