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January 1, 2016
It seems like everywhere you turn in the summer months, insects of all shapes and sizes are around. Each summer, we have the good (beautifully patterned monarch butterflies and elegant ladybugs), the bad (vicious yellow jackets and noisy cicadas), and the ugly (bloodthirsty mosquitos and bothersome fruit flies). But when the temperature drops, where do our six-legged friends go?
It depends on the insect.
All insects want to escape the chilly weather, and there are a few different tactics that different insect species employ to do just that. Some insects migrate to warmer climates, others move indoors, and still others spend their winters in immature stages. A select few insects are even capable of making their own version of antifreeze to stay warm.
Read on to learn how bugs survive the freeze.
Many insects survive the winter by avoiding it. When the weather starts to turn, certain insects—like butterflies and dragonflies—travel south much like birds. North American monarch butterflies, for instance, make an incredibly long journey each winter. Those living east of the Rockies travel to central Mexico to avoid the chill, while those west of the mountains move to southern California. What makes the monarch unique within the migratory insect community is that the same individual insects that travel south each winter return when the spring begins.
For other migratory insects, the process is a bit different. When leafhoppers and milkweeds migrate south, for instance, it’s different individuals that reinvade the next year.
Many insects in our region treat winter in the same way that we do: They try to stay indoors as much as possible. Ladybugs, cluster flies, elm leaf beetles, and other bugs spend winter in walls, attics, and other hiding spots in our homes.
An unfortunate truth is that there are already ant, bed bug, and termite invaders in many homes, and these insects don’t have to adjust their living habits for the winter.
Insect eggs and pupae—insects in the non-feeding growth stage—are able to survive at colder temperatures than adult insects. These bugs often spend the winter attached to tree branches or twigs and use the plant’s natural defenses to protect themselves. Plants create galls, growths that form around these insects, shielding them from the elements.
Other insects—like cicadas and June beetles—spend the winter in the larvae stage in protected cocoons or as grubs that burrow far into the ground. These insects need this cold period in order to complete their development. If they hatch too early, they’ll have little chance of survival.
Some insects have the ability to create a protein that amazingly acts like antifreeze. These glycol-like substances resist freezing the insects’ blood, preventing them from being torn apart internally by ice crystals. It also lowers the freezing point inside of an insect, allowing them to become more cold-tolerant, and protecting cells and tissues from damage.
This ability is found in some types of beetles and certain moths and butterfly species.
Just like us, insects have different tactics for dealing with the cold months. Even though these insects aren’t out of our lives for good, we can take solace in the fact that we get a break from biting and buzzing in the wintertime.