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Where the wild things go: A gardener’s guide for winterWhere the wild things go: A gardener’s guide for winter

Looking for life in winter, check out insects you might see on a stroll.

December 6, 2017

3 Min Read
WHAT IS THAT? Bee or fly? Both. In warm winters, gardeners might spot this unusual insect buzzing about. The bee fly has the body markings of a bee, but wings of a fly.

By Scott Woodbury

Where do insects go in the winter?

Some will venture out, while others seek shelter. Some states are blessed with plentiful balmy days in winter. Take a walk in a native prairie garden, and you can see the signs of life crawling out from under a leaf or flying right up to your porch stoop.

Still other insects take refuge from harsh winter conditions in lawns, gardens and forests. Here is a look at where a few insects go in the winter:

• Butterflies. When it comes to butterflies, the question mark, eastern comma, tortoiseshell and mourning cloak butterflies overwinter as adults. They find protection from cold winter winds under leaf litter, fallen logs, and the bark of white oak and shagbark hickory trees.

To encourage these butterflies and other insects that overwinter under leaves, don’t rake them up in woodland wildflower beds. In planting areas in the front yard or near the house, rake up leaves in fall and immediately, replace with a 1- to 2-inch layer of ground leaf mulch (not compost). This should insulate most hibernating insects and keep weeds from sprouting in spring.

• Bee fly. The bee fly — a fly that mimics bees with its soft furry-looking yellow and black hair like a bee but has wings like a fly— appears in warm winters. Like other fly species, it overwinters as an adult in the crannies of tree bark, rock and buildings. Many different flies can be seen in winter, especially on winter-flowering witch-hazels and late winter-blooming pawpaw.

FINDING THE BEE FLY: One place to look for the bee fly is around a witch hazel plant.

• Walking sticks. James Trager, an entomologist who works at Shaw Nature Reserve, says walking sticks drop eggs to the ground randomly in autumn and then die. The eggs are similar to wood poppy and bloodroot seeds in that ants gather some of them, bring them back to the nest and eat them. The egg portion survives in the earthen nest through winter where it hatches in spring into a walking stick nymph. Out it crawls from the nest and into the native garden it wanders.

• Praying mantis. Ever notice gravid female praying mantises in fall? The green or brown ones with a big belly? The big green ones are the invasive Asian species; the smaller brown or tan ones are native.

In fall, mantises lay their eggs inside a mass of brownish tan “Styrofoam” that is extruded from its swollen belly onto a plant stem about 2 to 4 feet off the ground. If you accidentally cut one off, you can shove the stem back in the ground. If the stem you cut is too short, duct tape it onto a taller stem. In spring, they all hatch at once, feeding on whatever insects they encounter including each other.

• Water dwellers. Back in the pond, juvenile dragonfly, damselfly and other aquatic insect nymphs live in the muck in winter. If you want to clean out the bottom of a water feature, wait until May and try to scoop up as many critters as possible in a bucket and return them to the water when finished or another water feature that you clean out on alternating years.

Get out and sleuth around for insects this winter. Perhaps you will spot some on a trip to the compost bin or to the mailbox. Either way, discover and learn about the next wild thing that shows up in your native garden.

Woodbury is the curator of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Mo., and an adviser to the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Grow Native! program.


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