Pollinators and the garden in winter

Man-made bee houses. Good replacement for holes in old logs

Do you ask yourself: where do pollinators go in winter? We see them through the warm seasons visiting flowers and doing their invaluable job. But, then what happens to them? Putting aside the few, such as hummingbirds and monarch butterflies, which fly to better climates, all the others find a secluded place to spend the cold months. Like hibernating bears, many fatten themselves by stocking up on supplies and then go to sleep. Others rest as eggs or in an immature state such as a larva or pupa. Either way, they need a sheltered space safe from predators, parasites and excessive cold.

I know that some gardeners, with the best of intentions, destroy these vital shelters. It may be a good idea to take a look at all the places used by pollinators during the winter. This is one case in which a little untidiness may be a good thing.

Most bees are ground nesters; this means that they build their nests in the ground, preferably a bare spot dry and sunny and not subject to flooding. Sometimes there is a patch large enough for a whole town of nests; other times, just a few square inches of soil free from vegetation fill the needs of one enterprising bee raising a family. The mother bee dies at the end of the season, her mission accomplished. Her babies will emerge from the nests next spring.

Ground nest of a digger bee

Not anthills but a small town of Lasioglossum bees

Bumble bees find some nook or cranny underground, perhaps under a tree root, a log, or even an old wall. The difference here is that the overwintering pollinator in this case is the adult, already mated and fertilized female which will start a whole new colony next spring.

One of my favorite bees, Augochlora pura, doesn’t nest underground. Instead it finds a dead log, whose bark is beginning to peel, and builds its nest under the bark. The younger generation emerges at the end of summer. They mate, and the new bees find shelter, once again, under loose tree bark. Many old dead logs, serve as wintering shelter for this bee.

Two Augochlora pura females getting ready for winter in November

A sleeping beauty under bark in mid January

Sleeping Beauty's castle, old logs

Other bees, including mason and leaf-cutter bees, use hollow twigs or holes dug by beetle larvae in trees. Bee houses that imitate these conditions are gaining popularity among gardeners and mason bees readily accept them. This is becoming a necessity in our suburban gardens, where old trees with beetle holes are rare. Clumps of dried grasses or the hollow canes of plants such as hydrangea or brambles are also valuable to nesting bees if they are allowed to stand through the winter and early spring.

Hollow twigs are a winter haven to many pollinators

Bees are not the only pollinators. Butterflies and moths do a good job too; so let us take a look at a couple of them.

Fritillary caterpillars feed on violet plants. In the fall, when the adult butterfly is ready to lay its eggs, these plants are wilting or totally gone. The female lays its eggs near the remnants of violet plants or in the most likely places for violets to grow. Even if many eggs are lost, there are enough left to maintain the populations year after year. The curious thing is that the eggs hatch in the fall when there is nothing for the caterpillars to eat. So the tiny newborns bury themselves a little deeper and go to sleep until the next spring. By then, their food is ready and waiting for them.

Hummingbird moths (Hemaris), those colorful tiny pseudo-hummingbirds (I have seen many people fooled by them) have a different strategy. Their eggs hatch in the summer and the caterpillars feed on one of their favorite plants. They are not very choosy, from honeysuckles, to viburnums, to blackberries; all of them are good for the several species of hummingbird moths. In autumn, the fully grown caterpillar drops to the ground, buries itself under the leaf litter and becomes a pupa. Now it is ready for winter.

A patch of leaf litter serves as a winter home for some pollinators

There are many other variations on these general themes. Not just pollinators, but also a number of other insects, some of them beneficial predators of pest insects, take advantage of the mentioned wintering spots. We can conclude that: bare spots, dead logs, dried up grasses or other shrubby plants and leaf litter are all vital to pollinators and to other creatures, all of them important components of a garden ecosystem. The perfectly manicured garden may appeal to a certain idea of esthetics but it is a monstrosity from the ecological point of view. Some of us need to readjust the way we view a garden.

There is great beauty in the mechanism of how an ecosystem works. I relish this beauty so I find it easy to accept the visual impact of an “untidy” garden in need of some raking, re-sodding, log removal, leaf litter removal, etc.

Photos by Beatriz Moisset

© 2011, Beatriz Moisset. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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    About Beatriz Moisset

    Born in Argentina and a resident of the United States for about forty years. A biologist by profession and a photographer and painter by avocation. I finally found the way to combine all these different interests in one single package when I became interested in pollinators. I have been photographing and painting them and studying their biology and ecology and I probably could spend the rest of my life doing so because the subject is endlessly fascinating and of tremendous esthetic, ecological and economic importance. Author, with Steven Buchman, of Bee Basics: An Introduction to Native Bees


    1. Donna@ Gardens Eye View says:

      Wonderful post. Gives me even more to say when neighbors wonder why I don’t clean up leaves or cut down the garden…I love learning more about the pollinators…thx
      Donna@ Gardens Eye View recently posted..Gardens Eye Verse

    2. Hendrica Regez says:

      Thank you for the information. Let’s spread the word: Less (yardwork) is more!

    3. Gloria says:

      Wonderful information. Keeping the cycle going through the seasons, or rather letting it happen without disturbance sounds like a strategy we can live with. Hopefully people just need to learn this information and will be inspired to develope new maintenance goals.
      For a long time the only information available said clean up everything to make sure no disease or pests overwintered to come back in spring even stronger. My current garden is much healthier than any pre wildlife gardening days.
      Gloria recently posted..Chicago, Forest Preserve District Cook County, Bike Trails.

    4. Loret says:


      Great article (and I downloaded your new publication this week). I have plenty of downed trees around to satisfy the bees in winter, but I just LOVE the look of your bee houses and think I will create a similar one for my own enjoyment (I’m not going to squeeze in the holes, just watch the bees) ;)
      Loret recently posted..Pond Prank

    5. Elephant's Eye says:

      Bit messy? I get 10 out of 10! And the bits I tidy off, get added to the mulch layer below. Beneath the leaves of the tuberous begonia sprawled over the gravel path, I found an indignant tabakrolletjie snake, hunting snails.
      Elephant’s Eye recently posted..Winter Chill at Paradise and Roses

    6. Beatriz Moisset says:

      How true! And some of them also act as biocontrols, catching insects to feed their babies.
      Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Black-and-yellow lichen moth, a little known pollinator



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