Insect super powers: surviving the winter

Insects have some really cool super powers and surviving extreme temperatures is one of them!  Have you ever wondered how insects manage to survive in the cold winter months? 

In the Summer, insects are all around us but in Winter they seem to disappear.  Where do they go and how do they survive the extremes of winter?  Unlike us, insects can’t put on a coat, hat and gloves or turn up the central heating!  With such a small body size, they could easily freeze as the temperature drops but they have some pretty cool ways of making sure their species continues to the next generation.

Take a look at these ideas. Who you think is right? Do you have a different idea?

Zane, Zeb, Zora and Zip are all right!

Strategy 1: Diapause

This is similar to mammalian hibernation where adults survive the winter in a state of torpor or dormancy.  Insects find suitable places to spend the winter such as holes in dead wood, under leaf litter or inside sheds and other buildings. They then become inactive, their heart rate slows right down and some insects even produce anti-freeze chemicals to stop them from freezing. 

Here are some insect species that undergo diapause:

During the Winter, only the queen bumblebee survives and amazingly all the other bumblebees die.  The queen spends the winter in an underground burrow already carrying the eggs that will be the next generation.

Butterflies such as Peacocks, Brimstones and Red Admirals shelter in garden sheds during diapause.  Sometimes you can find them inside houses – do not disturb!

Ladybirds huddle together in groups, for example, under bark of trees.

Strategy 2: Seasonal Lifecycles

The adult form of many insect species will not survive the winter but one of the other stages of their lifecycle (either the eggs, larvae or chrysalises) will survive by keeping warm in places such as leaf litter, under bark or in long grass waiting to be activated by the warmth of the sun in the spring.

The larval stage of the Stag Beetle and the Purple Emperor butterfly survive the winter, but the adults die.

Strategy 3: Migration

A few British insects such as the Painted Lady and Clouded Yellow butterflies migrate to Africa for the Winter.  Individual Painted Ladies have been recorded making journeys of nearly 2,500 miles. Unlike birds, the same individuals do not make the return journey the following year – that journey is made by a new generation.

Strategy 4:  Remain Active

Lots of insects do, in fact, remain active in the winter.  It is just harder to find them because they are keeping warm under leaf litter, amongst long grass or, in the case of aquatic insects, under water.  Most insects who do this are just feeding and waiting for the Spring when they can find a mate and reproduce but some species, such as Winter Moths and December Moths, reproduce during the winter months.

We would love to see your photos or hear about insects you have seen this Winter. What can you find in your garden or local outside spaces?  Be careful not to disturb them too much! You can tell us about it using the form on our Contact Us page, or email us at hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk.

The November Moth

The insect of the month has to be the November Moth, Epirrita dilutata. This moth is widespread in the UK and, although it gets its common name from its appearance in November, you can spot adults flying throughout the autumn in woods, hedgerows, parks and gardens.

The wingspan is 38-44mm with a dark wavy pattern against a lighter background. It’s easy to easy to mix this moth up with two similar species, the pale November moth E. christyi and the Autumnal Moth E. autumnata, both of which look similar. To make things even more confusing, all three species also have darker forms!

The caterpillar can be found in the spring and summer months feeding on a range of deciduous trees and shrubs. It is one of the ‘inch worms’ or ‘loopers’ that move by stretching out, then bringing their rear end forward to meet the front, forming a loop. They the stretch their front end out again and repeat the process. They are about an inch (2.5cm) long so it looks as if they are measuring as they move along.

Welcome to Crunchy on the Outside!

Crunchy on the outside is a new blog for and by young entomologists.

Interested in insects? Perhaps you saw something we posted online, came to the museum, or maybe we visited you at school for an Insect Discovery Day. However you heard of us, if you’re interested in insects this is the place for you!

We’ll be sharing news about insects and the natural world, people who work insects and help to protect them, what goes on at the museum, and new things for you to make and do. Look out for:

  • A peek behind the scenes at the museum
  • Insect related things to make and do
  • Info about people who work with insects, both past and present
  • Cool facts and stories about the amazing insects we can find in this country
  • A chance to have your say regarding what is in this blog and the museum
  • First dibs on related events

Crunchy on the outside is your opportunity to tell us what you would like from the museum, share your ideas and to get involved. We’d love to hear your ideas so please get in touch using the CONTACT US page if there is something you’d like to see.

Crunchy on the outside is part of the HOPE for the Future project at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The project is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.