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How Do Cold Temperatures Affect Insects?
Where do bugs go in the winter? How do they make it through to spring? Doesn’t anything kill these things?
These are the kinds of questions you may be wondering when you’re wiping ants off your kitchen countertop or spraying wasps that have accumulated in your window screen.
For many insects, the change in temperature is a matter of life and death. Some have adapted to survive temperature extremes as the seasons grow cold, while others have developed instinctual strategies to keep their species thriving when the weather takes its toll on an individual bug.
Whether they sneak inside your house or have their own way to keep warm, insects are survivors and understanding their cold tolerance levels can aid your efforts to control them.
COLD WEATHER EFFECTS ON INSECTS
There’s usually a noticeable drop in a number of insects invading your home when seasons change from summer to fall. It’s obvious the cold affects insects in some way, but how? And do different insects react to cold temperatures in different ways?
As you probably expected, many insects do indeed perish when cold weather strikes. This fate isn’t as harsh as it sounds, though. Most of these have already completed their true mission in life – to reproduce.
These insects often spend their last days preparing the next generation for the upcoming spring. They do so by laying eggs in sheltered areas or providing their larvae with food and shelter to survive the winter, often at the expense of their own well-being.
One good example is the field cricket. Adults (and immature nymphs) can't survive cold, winter temperatures. Their eggs, however, overwinter and will hatch in the spring, bringing forth a new generation of these pests.
Some insects, Monarch Butterflies are a prime example, outrun the cold weather by migrating away from it. These insects usually engage in a one-way migration to warmer climates to the south where they reproduce, die and send a new generation northward to begin the cycle again.
Other insects, such as dragonflies, engage in a less direct migration. Their daily activities continuously move them toward warmer climates, and the insects never really experience prolonged cold weather. Instead, these insect populations cycle north and south each year.
Like many other types of animals, some insects will go into one of two types hibernation to avoid cold temperatures. Called diapause, these hibernation-like states of torpor cause the insect to go dormant. This dormant period allows the insect to slow its metabolism and conserve energy and revive when temperatures rise again.
A few insects, particularly those with habitats in extreme latitudes, have developed the ability to survive ice formation within their tissues. They survive thanks to a natural anti-freeze they can create. This anti-freeze prevents the formation of damaging ice crystals and allows the insect to survive until they thaw. The famed woolly bear moth caterpillar and their arctic kin are well-known for their survival with the help of anti-freeze.
Probably the most popular cold-temperature defense mechanism of the insect world is freeze avoidance, which is a fancy term for “hunkering down for the winter.” These insects will retreat into rotting trees, bury themselves in the soil, hide inside a rotting log, and sneak into human-built structures to ride out the cold temperatures - a favorite tactic of ladybugs.
For insects that live in colonies, including bees, termites, and ants, fighting off frigid temperature takes on an added scope. Most of these insects only care about one thing when cold weather strikes – protecting their queens.
Where Do Ants Go in the Winter? They go underground!
Most ant colonies will seal the entrances to their nests when cold weather hits and enter a dormant stage, living off their stored energy. Throughout the winter, they remain clustered together in large groups to maintain body heat and keeping the queen warm is always the top priority. Without their queen, most ant colonies would only survive a few months.
Where Do Bees Go in the Winter? They stay inside their hive! Although these beneficial insects are cold-blooded, they spend their winters generating heat by fluttering their wings. The combined effort of all the bees is enough to keep them from freezing as they cluster together. As they generate this heat, individual bees are constantly moving from the cool outer section of the cluster to the warm inner part. The queen, however, always remains at the center, increasing her chances of survival.
Where Do Termites Go in the Winter? They keep on going in your house! The termites that typically target the wood in your home barely even bat an eye at cold temperatures. Yes, their activity slows down a bit during winter, but rarely completely ceases. Why do they keep working in such cold temperatures? To keep the queen happy and well-fed, of course!
Where Do Wasps Go in the Winter? They move inside your house! While most wasps die off in the fall, a few will move into sheltered spots to ride out the winter. These survivors are actually newly-mated queens who will emerge in the spring to start their own nest. Once they’ve made it inside a safe place in your home, including behind baseboards, in the attic and even under carpets, they usually go dormant until the spring.
OTHER INSECTS AND BUGS IN THE WINTER
Now that you understand how bugs survive the winter, you may be wondering about some particular types of insects and bugs and how they survive cold temperatures. Here’s the rundown:
Where Do Bed Bugs Go in the Winter? They never leave your house! – While Bed bugs go dormant in temperatures below 65 degrees, that’s not a real problem since most houses where they live are warmer than that. That means that bed bugs are active through the winter.
Where Do Centipedes Go in the Winter? They love your basement! – These arthropods seek out shelter to survive the cold, and there’s often no place better than a damp basement. Moisture is the most important facet for centipede survival, so you can also find them in compost piles, trash heaps, rotting logs and in piles of leaves.
Where Do Cockroaches Go in the Winter? Anywhere that’s warm! – These adaptable and infuriating insects acclimate to cold temperatures quite well. Inside your home or other structures, cockroaches have no problem at all with the winter. Cockroaches that live outside try to find a safe place to survive the winter. They look for all the basic necessities: Food, warmth and a daytime hiding place.
Where Do Fleas Go in the Winter? They stick with your pets! – When temperatures fall below freezing, most fleas will die within a few days. However, that’s only the fleas that are completely on their own. Most fleas survive the cold temperatures thanks to the warmth and protection provided by their warm-bodied host animals.
Where Do Flies Go in the Winter? They get a room all to themselves! – House flies rarely survive the winter unless they are inside and have food sources. Many people confuse cluster flies for the more common house fly. Cluster flies overwinter in a protected location, such as a wall void in your home, and emerge on warm days. They are often slow-moving and lethargic.
Where Do Ladybugs Go in the Winter? Anywhere to stay toasty warm! – Like many other insects, ladybugs look for shelter to survive the winter. When there aren’t any human structures around, they try to hide under rocks or in rotting logs. They are attracted to light-colored homes with a good southwestern exposure, and sneak inside through any gaps they can find. They hibernate in groups through the winter.
Where Do Moths Go in the Winter? Check your closet! – Many moths die off in the winter, having laid eggs that will hatch in the spring. The clothes moth, however, can survive all year long inside your home, eating natural fabrics and destroying your favorite sweaters and rugs in the process. Pantry moths and their larvae will go into a dormant state when temperatures cool, which can make it hard to eradicate an infestation as it will flare up when warm weather returns.
Where Do Mosquitoes Go in the Winter? They look for just the right place! – When temperatures fall too low, most mosquitoes will die off. Some, however, find shelter and go dormant through the winter. Most species survive by laying winter-hardy eggs that hatch in the spring.
Where Do Spiders Go in the Winter? Surprise! They’ve been there all along! – Contrary to popular belief, spiders don’t come inside because of cold temperatures. The ones you see in your house have been there all year long! These spiders colonize your home thanks to egg sacs that are inadvertently brought into your home. Normally, they avoid you. In fact, those spiders you do see are usually males looking for mates. Many outdoor spiders are cold-tolerant and hide from predators before going dormant through the winter.
Where Do Stink Bugs Go in the Winter? Someplace calm and secluded! – These agricultural pests have become real suburban pests in the last few years thanks to their desire to overwinter inside our homes. Stink bugs will seek out quiet places in your home, including your attic, crawl space or wall voids, often emerging during warm spells.
INSECTS AND COLD TEMPERATURES
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