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Nature Notes

Written by Tolly Beck
Tolly Beck is a horticulturist at Lasdon Park and Arboretum in Westchester County. She was formerly a horticulture educator for New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland, NY.

How do Pollinators Survive in Winter ?

The epic Monarch Butterfly migration journey to Mexico is well known.  But where do other non-migrating pollinators find shelter during our cold winters?  As it turns out, they often over winter right in our own yards and gardens.

Pollinators such as bees, beetles and many butterflies are content to find shelter in the leaf litter, twigs and brush that often get cleaned up in fall before winter arrives.  Mourning cloak, comma and question mark butterflies find a piece of protective bark or dried leaves to shelter under.  Some species of butterflies like the cabbage, white, sulphurs and swallowtails overwinter as a chrysalis and are firmly attached to a twig or dried plant stem.  Still other species like the fritillary and viceroy spend their winters in the caterpillar stage.  As caterpillars they hibernate in vegetation, silken nests or in rolled up leaves. 

Bees are another large group of pollinators that overwinter in yards and gardens.  Some bees will burrow into the ground.  Many native bees will hide in the hollow stems of herbs like lemon bee balm.  Mason bees especially look for dried, hollow stems in which to overwinter.

Our native ladybugs are not like the non-native ladybugs who enter the walls of our homes in order to overwinter.  Native ladybugs shelter in hollow logs, beneath rocks or under dry leaves during the cold winter.  When the weather warms they will come out of their natural shelter and spread pollen on our flowering plants as they eat the damaging aphids.

We can help our pollinating insects by leaving at least some of our fall clean-up chores until early spring.  Leaving the garden less tidy until spring is a great way to say “thank you” to our overwintering pollinators.