As a fan of “creepy crawlies,” winter is the time of year when I find myself missing the insect and arachnid species I typically enjoy interacting with during the warmer seasons.
Don’t get me wrong, not every species is my best friend. Flies pester, and scorpions scare me. Nonetheless, you can find me gazing at an orb weaver hard at work constructing her web, or flipping over old logs to find the decomposers, grubs, roly-polys, and more that lay underneath.
So, when these cold temperatures hit, and the outside world begins to freeze, where do the bugs go?
There are a few ways that animals can survive the cold. Many spend the winter in an underdeveloped state. Some species of insect, such as the praying mantis, will lay their eggs to overwinter and hatch in the spring. The female praying mantis will find a suitable spot to lay her eggs, typically a covered stem or twig, and occasionally on a wall, fence, or other man-made structure. The mantis eggs will be covered in a foam called ootheca, which will harden into a tan or white casing. This casing will protect the eggs until nymphs emerge in the spring. Praying mantis are great to have in your yard as they love to feast on flies, crickets, moths, mosquitos and more!
Speaking of nymphs, which are the immature form of some invertebrates, dragonfly nymphs can be found actively feeding and growing throughout the winter in water sources, even under ice. A dragonfly’s life cycle can last many years, but typically the insect spends most of its life in either a larval or nymph stage before progressing into an adult. The adult stage of a dragonfly’s life is typically only a few months long — enough time to mate and begin the cycle all over again by laying eggs. Dragonflies are another predatory insect. As adults, they eat gnats, mayflies, flies and mosquitos.
But what about the fully developed adults? Does winter spell out the end for them? For some species, yes. At the end of the season, after breeding has occurred and they have laid eggs, their time on our planet is done, and their life cycle ends.
For others, it’s just another leg of the journey, which is the case for species that migrate. Monarch butterflies, for example, will spend their winter hibernation in Mexico and some parts of Southern California. Some will travel over 3,000 miles to find a more suitable, warmer climate. Adult monarchs are valuable pollinators that help crops across North America. However, their numbers are dwindling due to habitat loss of not only their wintering grounds but their spring and summer breeding areas, as well. We can help these beautiful butterflies by planting milkweed in our gardens. Milkweed is the only food that monarch larvae consume, and the butterflies will not be able to finish their migration without areas of milkweed to support them.
Some species hibernate to survive, such as the popular ladybug beetle. Ladybugs will gather in groups of hundreds or even thousands and huddle together in cracks or crevices in tree bark or even your house to stay away from the cold. As a student at Pittsburg State University in southeast Kansas, I saw this wonderful phenomenon occur in front of my own eyes as thousands of ladybugs came together inside my apartment along one of my interior walls. The vibrant red cluster spent the entire winter hibernating inside my living room. Since ladybugs are harmless to humans and help us by feeding on aphids, I didn’t bother to charge rent to the best roommates I’ve ever had.
While insects are not everyone’s favorite animal group, they provide important services to our planet. Many species are predatory and help to eliminate unwanted pests; others are pollinators that ensure a future for the plants that help sustain us. Decomposers do the dirty work of turning dead organic matter into soil. Insects also provide important proteins to many other species, including humans.
Without insects, our world could not survive. We can help them out by simply letting them be, or by providing habitat resources for them, such as milkweed for the monarchs.
Enjoy a bug-free winter; spring will be here before we know it!
Emily Sexson is the conservation education manager at Lee Richardson Zoo.