At this time of year, when the outside world seems inert, frozen and inactive, where all the insects go. After all, in the summer there are plenty of insects in your garden and the outside in general, and probably a few inside the house, too! So where do they all go in the winter?
The answer to this depends on exactly what type of insect you are thinking about. There are an estimated 1.4 billion insects for every person on earth and over 10 million different species, and they have lots of different ways of avoiding the harsh temperatures and lack of food over winter.
How Do Bees Survive Winter?
Honeybees stay in their hives over winter, often forming a cluster to retain heat. They will eat their supplies of honey they collected and stored in the hive during the summer. Some bees and wasps who live in nests often die out over winter with only the queen surviving to lay more eggs in spring. Other solitary bees like bumble bees hibernate in hollow plant stems or other small hidey-holes during winter – bug hotels are a great form of shelter for them.
Do Insects Hibernate?
A lot of insects enter a kind of hibernation over winter known as diapause. They find somewhere to shelter, usually out of the wind and rain like under logs and leaf litter, small holes in trees, or similar safe places. Their bodies enter a state of torpor, which means their metabolism and bodily processes slow down to preserve energy. Some insects even produce a sort of antifreeze chemical in their bodies which prevents them from freezing to death. So even though you don’t see a lot of insects in winter, many are still present.
Much like honeybees, ladybirds will cluster together to share warmth over winter in a hiding place under tree bark or other sheltered locations. If you go into the shed or garage in winter, you might find a collection of ladybirds, all hoping you are going to shut the door soon! Other insects who live in colonies, like ants, will seal up their nests underground and stay relatively inactive during the winter. When springtime rolls around, they come out again in force to gather food.
Some Insects Survive Winter As Larvae
Some insects avoid the winter because they have such a short life span. Insects such as crickets and grasshoppers breed in the summer, lay eggs which form into larvae, safely hidden in soil or leaf litter, and the new generation hatches in the spring. Most species of butterfly in the UK spend the winter as caterpillars, although some butterflies do hibernate, including Tortoiseshells and Red Admirals.
Some Insects Are Active In Winter
Strangely enough, there are some insects that remain active during the winter. Some spiders continue to go about their business, and some types of moth and gnat actually conduct their courtship during winter. Some kinds of ground beetle will be less active in the winter but they do not enter torpor or hibernation, instead, they borrow under the soil and enjoy a hearty diet of decaying organic matter and fungi.
A few insects migrate to other countries in winter, like the Painted Lady butterfly which goes all the way to Africa for some winter sun. Most butterflies however will only migrate as far as your house for the winter, only to start flying about once the central heating comes on. If this happens, you can gently relocate them to a colder, but sheltered environment like a garden shed.
How You Can Help Insects Survive The Winter
Build a Bug Hotel
There are plenty of charming bug hotels for sale, or if you want to do some crafting, it’s easy to build your own bug hotel. If you feel like adding some more wild areas to your garden, a pile of sticks or twigs is a great low-effort wildlife shelter that will be appreciated by local insects.
Don’t Tidy up Your Garden For Winter
You might be tempted to remove any dead plants, pull up remaining weeds and sweep up leaves in order to tidy up the garden, but don’t! These can all provide shelter and food for insects overwintering in your garden. Leaves will decay naturally and enrich your soil, so there’s really no need to rake or sweep them up, apart from on paths or driveways where it’s easy to slip over on them.
Leave Food Out For Birds
Making sure there is plenty of protein and fat-rich food for birds in your garden may mean the hibernating insects have a better chance of survival. The birds will certainly appreciate a little extra food during winter when hunting and foraging are more difficult. Remember to clean your bird feeders often to avoid the growth of harmful bacteria or the spread of disease. If you have a bird bath, clean that regularly too and add a little warm water on especially cold days to stop it from freezing over.
Don’t Prune Perennials Until Spring
If you have already done some pruning, that’s ok – just make a pile or stack of the prunings in an undisturbed corner of your garden, this will provide a haven for insects and small animals to shelter in until spring.
Sow Some Wildflower Seeds for Next Spring
You can plant some wildflower seeds now for an explosion of colour in early spring! Bees and other insects will be emerging from their winter slumber and ready for food, which wildflowers provide in abundance. It’s easy to grow your own wildflowers – see our guide here.