by Renate Sander-Regier

Although Bald-faced Hornets – minor pollinators – build elaborate homes in summer, they abandon them in late fall when the queens mate and are the only members of the colony that overwinter. Photo by Sandy Garland.

On this late-winter morning, with snowflakes swirling outside the window, thoughts turn to the bees, flies, moths, beetles, and butterflies of spring, summer, fall. Where are they now, those wild insect pollinators that visited flowers and graced the garden not so very long ago? Where and how are they spending the winter? When will they return?

The answers to these questions, it turns out, are as diverse as the pollinators themselves. Some insects overwinter as adults, while others spend the season in earlier life stages. Some migrate, while others hibernate nearby. Some spend the winter in the soil, leaf litter, or vegetation, while others find shelter under bark, logs, stones, or in various crevices and crannies. Still others overwinter inside tunnels in wood, plant stems, or underground.

This unknown insect sheltered under tree wrap before spinning a frothy pink cocoon and settling in for winter. Photo by Sandy Garland.

The pollinators emerge at different times – from early spring to late summer. And when they appear, they are hungry, and the quicker they can find food, the better. So it is a good idea to plant a diversity of vegetation that will flower throughout the season.

It is also important to provide opportunities for pollinators and other beneficial insects to spend the winter, in the sorts of places they are occupying right now. That means, as much as possible, not tidying the garden too much in the fall (see Putting the garden to bed – while helping pollinators), and leaving patches of bare ground and dead wood for nesting tunnels. It is also helpful to offer brush piles and nesting structures. (See Gardening for native pollinators, under Resouces.)

For more information about pollinators in winter, and suggestions for helping them through the season in your own garden:

  • Pollinators and the garden in winter provides excellent information for offering pollinators overwintering opportunities, with interesting accompanying photos.
  • Where do pollinators go in winter? offers a more detailed overview of pollinator wintering strategies. While the piece is written from a UK perspective and portrays species from that part of the world, the strategies apply to pollinators here as well.
  • Pollinator winter is written by an Australian researcher who discusses pollinator overwintering on agricultural land. She stresses the importance of integrating overwintering resources into crop pollinator management strategies.

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