Where Do Insects Go When it Snows?


Some insects, such as the stonefly, thrive in the harsh conditions of winter. (Photo credit: Photo Fun/Shutterstock)

For those who don’t like the cold and snow,perhaps the one good thing about winter is the fact that were not bothered by a lot of insects. Insects, however, don’t disappear when its cold. While some insects, such as the monarch butterfly, migrate like many songbirds do and fly off to warmer climates when temperature plummet, most insects spend their winters very close to where they spend their springs and summers. They just do it out of sight.

Insects go into a state of dormancy in winter, just like bears and other mammals do when seasonal living conditions become harsher and food sources scarcer. For insects, this state is known as diapause. During diapause, normal functioning slows to allow the insect to pass the time in a kind of suspended state.

We might describe insects as tiny bags of water. In order to survive colder weather, therefore, the most important thing an insect must do is decrease the amount of water in its body. When water freezes, the formation of ice crystals inside the insects body would kill it. This means that the smaller the insect, the more suited it is to survive the winter. A housefly, for instance, can go dormant much more easily than a grasshopper can and a smaller housefly is even better able to go dormant than a larger one. Also, insects in earlier stages of development, that is, non-feeding stages such as eggs and larvae, are also better able to survive the harsh conditions of winter. In addition, survival depends on the general conditions an insect usually experiences. For example, insects more suited to tropical conditions wont survive long in a colder climate unless they can find places inside of buildings to wait out the winter.

Insects begin the process of preparing for diapause when they sense the daylight hours becoming shorter. They get their bodies ready. They empty their stomachs of food, as food contains water and thus can promote the production of ice crystals. Some insects actually change their biochemistry to replace some of the water in their bodies with sugar alcohols, such as glycerol, that helps prevent freezing. (Glycerol is a component of the antifreeze used in automobiles to keep the liquid in the cooling system from freezing.) Other insects may burrow into the bark of trees to stay warm, and still others use plant tissue to form structures called galls around themselves. Galls are like a kind of cancerous growth on the plant that insects use so they can spend the winter in relative safety and warmth.

Diapause, however, need not be a permanent state for the entire winter. If winter temperatures rise to around 45 F (7 C), many insects come back to life, apparently resuming normal operation. They return to sleep once temperatures decrease. This is why the sight of an insect on a particularly sunny winter day is not all that unusual.

And, of course, considering all the species of insects that exist, there are a few that seem to defy the trends completely. Stoneflies, for example, rather than burrowing in for the winter, come out to mate from the months of January to April. Filled with glycols to stave off freezing, stoneflies find unique advantages in the cooler conditions. For one, there are fewer predators around to prey on them. For another, the male stonefly actually uses the snow as means to attract mates. Pounding the snow and ice with his tail, he produces vibrational signals for distant female stoneflies. The female responds with vibrations of her own, and the back-and-forth pounding leads the two to one another. Other cold-resistant insects include the winter moth (Operophtera brumata) and the December moth (Poecilocampa populi), both of which are often seen flying at temperatures close to 0 C. However, perhaps the most cold-resilient tiny creatures would be the spiders of the Linyphiidae family, many of whom can be seen spinning webs at temperatures as low as -1 C.

So, the next time you’re bundled up outside in the snow, take a moment to consider the insects that are reveling (or taking a long winter’s nap) in the cold conditions of winter.

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Winter Stoneflies: Insects with Antifreeze




  1. Noah cowart says

    I am glad the insects go dormant in the winter. Their burrowing away results in my happiness, because I am not a fan of them. Stoneflies are smart though for mating in the winter, because then there is less competition.

  2. Insects are annoying I’m glad they “sleep” in the winter.

  3. WOW!!! Such good information about insects. I never knew they did that. I’ve always wondered what they did. GREAT INFO!!

  4. That last paragraph makes no sense. Why should I think about the insects “reveling” while I’m outside in the winter? I want to have fun in the winter, not think about insects. That’s the other thing: I find it insulting that the author would think nobody likes winter. If that were the case, I suppose the multimillion dollar skiing industry is all just a fantasy.

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