Ladybirds in the crevices of a branch

12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Hibernation

Here we are on day five, and if you feel like sleeping through the winter months, you are not the only ones. Many animals lower their activity or even fully hibernate over winter. You may know of hedgehogs, dormice and bats doing this, but did you know that there are insects that hibernate too?

You can help hibernating wildlife through the winter. Follow the Butterfly Conservation blog for tips on how to garden to support winter wildlife. Froglife have great advice on supporing amphibians and reptiles through the winter months, and the RSPB have a guide to making a frog and toad abode for hibernating amphibians.

Winter Wildlife: ‘Hibernating’ Insects

Matt Hayes, Research Assistant at the Museum of Zoology, writes:

Large white butterfly pupa on a pale wall
Large white pupa (c) Jamie McMillan CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Strictly speaking, insects don’t hibernate in the same way as warm blooded animals but many do enter a state of diapause, where they are dormant and wait out the winter months in a similar fashion. Most species of insect do this as larvae or pupae, and seek out tufty vegetation or leaf litter amongst the undergrowth where they can more safely avoid the cold. This means that ‘messier’ parts of our gardens are actually extremely important to winter wildlife. Instead of ‘tidying up’ in autumn as many of us usually do, try waiting until spring when some of the insects will have had the chance to emerge.

Ladybirds huddling together on a van
Hibternating ladybirds (c) David Thwaites

Other insects overwinter as adults. Larvae of many solitary bees develop in nest chambers throughout the summer and pupate to form adults by September. However, instead of emerging, the adults often remain in the safety of their nest chamber until the following spring, when temperatures begin to rise. It is also quite common to see groups of ladybirds huddled together in late autumn and early winter as temperatures begin to drop. At this time of year ladybird food sources, such as aphids, are dwindling, and freezing temperatures pose a threat to them. Therefore, the adult ladybirds seek out warm, sheltered locations to hunker down and see out the coldest weather. This year we have seen a lot of our native seven-spot ladybirds huddling together, but the larger, invasive harlequin ladybirds also show this behaviour.

Brimstone butterfly resting on dried leaves
Brimstone butterfly (c) Will George CC BY-NC 2.0

As well as ladybirds, some of our longest-lived UK butterfly species overwinter as adults. These include the brimstone, peacock, small tortoiseshell and comma butterflies. Many red admiral butterflies also attempt to overwinter in the UK, but for now it is too cold for most of them to survive. 

The warmth of our houses can attract many of these insects indoors and they may take up residence in the corner of a room in their search for a safe place to shelter from the elements. If they are not disturbed, this can be fine, but central heating can wake them up prematurely when conditions outside are still too cold and there is no nectar available for them to feed on. Therefore, if you are worried about a butterfly or other insect waking up too early in your house, you may want to relocate them to a more suitable location. You can try to gently move them into a cardboard box and give them a few minutes to settle. If you have one, you can then gently usher the insect out into a shed, garage, porch or unheated room, so long as it can easily escape again once the warm weather returns.  If none of these options are available to you then try to keep the insect as cool as possible, before releasing outside on a sunny day. 

Peacock butterfly on tree bark
Peacock butterfly (c) Thom McKiernan CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Butterflies hunkering down for winter or emerging in spring will need to stock up their energy supplies at times of year when fewer flowering plants are available. Providing them with early and late flowering plants can help supply them with food.

Find out more about the plants that support butterflies with our Gardening for Butterflies post and the Wildlife Trusts’ website, and gardening for moths on the Butterfly Conservation website.

Winter Wildlife Creations: Make a bee hotel

Sara Steele, Learning Assistant, writes:

Insect refuge made of a wooden frame with bamboo in one section and logs with holes in them for other sections
Insect refuge

Bee hotels can be really simple and a small one done right can be even better than a large one trying to do too much.

There are lots of free guides online, which you can see below for guidance, but the basic idea is to provide a collection of nesting tubes for bees to lay their eggs in. Hollow bamboo canes cut to size and tied together, or an old block of wood with holes drilled into one side, do a great job.

Free online guides:
Wildlife Trusts: How to make a Bee Hotel
Bumblebee Conservation: Bee Nest Boxes

Top tips:

  1. Add a lid or cover to stop the rain reaching your nesting tubes. Some sort of covering extending over the front of nesting tubes will prevent the developing larvae getting damp.
  2. Provide a range of nesting tubes with different sized holes to attract a range of species. Most solitary bees will do well with holes ranging from 3 – 5mm but try not to go beyond 2 – 10mm, which could otherwise be too big or too small.
  3. Aim for your nesting tubes to be at least 15mm long. This will give enough room for female bees to create a series of egg chambers in a line.
  4. Avoid using plastic straws to make the nesting chambers. Try more breathable material instead, such as wood, which will help prevent damp and mould building up.
  5. Hang the bee hotel up on sunny wall. Positioning your refuge one or two meters up in a sunny spot will improve its chances of being used by bees flying through the area in search of warm nesting sites.

For more tips on creating an insect refuge, check out our post: A warm welcome for minibeasts.

12 Days of Winter Wildlife Day 6: Winter Mammals

Visit the blog again tomorrow to discover winter mammals. Get under the skin of the Red Fox and Badger as Learning Officer Dr Roz Wade takes you on a guided tour of their skulls. Find out about the seal pups born in the middle winter on the Norfolk Coast with Dr Andrew Bladon and watch Ellie Bladon explore the conservation of the hazel dormouse with her award-winning nature film. And download our food cache memory game to see if you have a memory as good as a squirrel’s.

12 Days of Winter Wildlife catch up:

Robin on frosted willow branches
(c) John Howlett

Catch up on Day 1 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife. Watch the livestreamed launch, including a virtual tour of the wildlife in the Botanic Garden, a Q&A with Rob Jaques of the British Trust for Ornithology, and sing along with the premiere of the 12 Days of Critters song. Read the top winter wildlife tips from staff and students at the Museum of Zoology. Download our Winter Wildlife spotter sheet, and create your very own hedgehog in a leaf pile.

Robin perched in a yew tree
(c) John Howlett

Catch up on Day 2 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Garden Birds. Enjoy a wonderful film about attracting birds to your garden by Dr Andrew Bladon, listen to recordings of garden birds in winter by Dr Tony Fulford, and learn how to make seed cakes for birds with Lucy Williamson.

Completed moth craft as tree decoration
Moth decoration by Natasha Lavers

Catch up on Day 3 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Active Insects. In this post we explore the amazing world of moths that are active during the winter moths. Find out about moth-trapping with a film from moth expert Annette Shelford, discover winter moths and December moths with Research Assistant Matt Hayes, and make your own moth decoration out or recycled fabric with Museum Volunteer Natasha Lavers.

Woodlouse on wood chippings
(c) Max Westby CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Catch up on Day 4 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Life Underground. Join Dr Ed Turner, Curator of Insects, as he gives his top tips for creating a compost heap, and shows you some of the amazing animals that live there.

And remember to send your winter wildlife spots and creations to us by tagging us on social media or using #12DaysofWinterWildlife and you could feature in our online community gallery.

Ladybirds in the crevices of a branch
(c) Tom Austin CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Find activites exploring the seasons and strategies animals have for coping with the winter cold in our Nature Classroom on The Changing Seasons.

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