Winter Shelter

February 20, 2023

Winter at our wildflower labyrinth requires the eyes of a poet — or a thoughtful gardener. It’s not easy to see the beauty of so many shades of brown, the dry and prickly husks of formerly lush and colorful shrubs and grasses that bloomed in waves through the year. But this is where many pollinators, beetles and other native insects safely spend the season of scarcity. We purposefully leave it untouched as a respite for winter-weary garden residents.

Some butterflies, like monarchs, survive winters by migrating to warmer climates, but others hide out in dormant landscapes in varying stages of development. Mourning cloak butterflies (Nymphalis antiopa) overwinter as adults in tree cavities and wood piles. Sometimes they can be spotted soaking up sunrays on sunny winter days. Cecropia moths (Hyalophora cecropia), from the family of giant silkworm moths, overwinter as pupae in brown cocoons attached to twigs. The banded woollybear (Pyrrharctia isabella), which becomes the Isabella moth, overwinters as a caterpillar or pupae under bark, leaf litter or logs.

Some native bees and fireflies also shelter under leaf litter or inside stems and dead wood. Ladybugs hide out in a dormant state in tree cavities or beneath logs and rocks. Other insects burrow underground beneath the brittle stalks still standing. Beetles, which are essential pollinators for magnolias and spicebush, also burrow underground to survive cold temperatures. And often, birds that don’t migrate may feed on dead seed heads.

Delaying clean-out is one way to help our pollinator friends survive the harshest season. Just like us, they need shelter and rest in order to keep the cycle of life turning. Here are some of the steps we take, also recommended by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, to provide shelter for overwintering pollinators:

  • Leave your leaves. They provide nutrients, insulation and shelter for caterpillars and eggs.
  • Leave logs, dead trees and stumps to provide shelter for insects and winter birds.
  • If gathering sticks, leave them in a pile as shelter for insects.
  • Leave some soil uncovered. Bumblebees and other ground-nesting pollinators will burrow there.
  • Choose plants that are early and late bloomers to provide food for pollinators. Plant them in clusters to make them easy to find and to help insects conserve energy while feeding.
  • Wait until late spring to prune stems and twigs or allow them to decompose naturally. They provide nesting sites for solitary bees and other pollinators.