View from the Garden: Hibernating Winter Insects Will Soon Signal Spring

Mourning cloak butterfly.
Mourning cloak butterfly. Photo credit: D. Gordon E. Robertson

The garden is covered in a thick layer of snow that has laid there for at least a week. Birds and squirrels account for activity in the landscape. Though the blanket of white covers much of the evidence of last year’s garden, we gardeners know that an explosion of spring growth awaits. And I take great delight contemplating the insects hibernating out there, also waiting to explode into growth.

We marvel at the migration of monarch butterflies, but most of the insects, a fascinating and necessary part of our world, are hibernating right outside. While I am reveling in the warmth of my house, they are tucked into spaces at the sides of windows and doors, between walls in attics, cellars and, basements. They are under porches and decks, in storage sheds and under shingles. They are under rocks and fallen trees, under leaf litter, in dead plants, in burrows and holes, under tree bark. Extended families of colonizing insects are deep underground.

Each type hibernates in a form specific to its life cycle, i.e. egg, pupae, nymph, cocoon, chrysalis or adult. Like plants and wildlife, they respond to changes in light and temperature. To survive the cold, they replace the water in their systems with a kind of antifreeze, suspend all growth and activity, and slow their metabolic rates to just high enough to keep them alive. And if the freeze/thaw cycle is not too frequent and they don’t become desiccated from of lack of moisture, they will carry on their life cycles with spring warmth.

I am comforted to know that the wooly bears I see in the fall are tucked into the leaf litter in my borders. They will emerge in spring, spin a cocoon and become an Isabella tiger moth that lays eggs in late summer to produce more fall wooly bears.

Last spring I experienced an intimate moment with a mourning cloak butterfly, as the two of us were in the same patch of flowers. It worked the flowers so close to me that I was able to see its velvet black wings, with blue spots and yellow borders, very distinctly. This butterfly hibernates as an adult in barns, sheds, hollow trees and under log plies.

Nothing means summer to me like the songs of katydids. In fall, these insects glue their eggs onto twigs and some varieties deposit them into the stems of goldenrod and asters.

Ladybugs hibernate in colonies under loose tree bark, tree cavities, building cavities, in walls or similar places.

June bugs burrow beneath the frost line.

Ants close the entrance to their homes and move the group farther underground. Bumble bees hibernate, as young queens spend the season in a burrow, emerging in spring to raise a family as a single mom!

Praying mantis, my most favorite insect to see in the garden, make an egg case in fall that they attach to a branch or stem. With luck, the gardener may discover it while working “inside” a plant or shrub. They are very well disguised but if discovered, a jewel to be watched in spring, perchance to witness the magical hatching of thousands of quarter inch mantis babies.

Black swallow tail butterflies hang from branches as pupae, the amazing cecropia moths as cocoons on twigs and the extraordinary luna moths in folded leaves that fall onto the leaf litter in autumn. If you see one of these as adults, you have, indeed, been chosen by the garden gods.

The winter phase of the extraordinary life cycle of honey bees is spent deep in the heart of the hive, in a ball of bees. The queen is protected in the middle of the ball. All of the bees in the hive surround her and beat their wings to create heat for her and themselves.

These are just a few examples of the numerous types of insects hibernating in our gardens and the larger landscape.

Winter seems to have settled on us. Sometimes it feels unending even with the occasional sunny day. But rest assured, the garden and the attending insects, even in their present torpors, will endure and come to life again in spring.

Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener, landscaper and consultant. For gardening discussion you can call her at 631-434-5067.

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