What Are Maine Insects Doing in the Winter?

One of the small consolations of living through a cold, dark Maine winter is that, hey, at least we’re not getting bitten by mosquitoes!

There are thousands of “bug” species in Maine. You see them all over in the spring and summer — bees, mosquitoes, flies, and dragonflies zip through the air, ants and beetles (and ticks) crawl through the grass, water striders skate across the pond surface, and spiders build webs in all the nooks and crannies.

In winter, though, everything is gone. Nothing flying, nothing crawling. They don’t all just disappear — but where do they all go? What happens to all these critters? Let’s find out.

Ants. Ants hibernate! To prepare for the coming winter, ants will put on weight in the fall and then find a warm place to hunker down. Some species move under the bark of trees or under a rock, and other species move deep into their nests and block up the entrance holes with soil. They’ll stay put until the first warm days of spring get them active again.

Mosquitoes. Different mosquitoes have different winter strategies. Some can survive the winter in a hibernation-like state called diapause, where they basically shut down development until the warmth returns. Other adults lay eggs in shallow water when it gets cold and die off, leaving the eggs in diapause to wait until the water is warm enough for development to begin.

Ticks. We hate to be the bearers of bad news, but cold weather doesn’t really kill off ticks. Some species, like dog ticks and Lone Star ticks, will go dormant in the winter. Others, like deer ticks, can be actively moving around looking for a host throughout the winter, depending on snow cover. Scientists in Rhode Island filmed ticks surviving a 3 degree night under a bit of snow. Be careful in all seasons!

Butterflies and Moths. Butterflies and moths employ a variety of strategies to to survive the winter. Monarch Butterflies are famous for their migrations, ditching the cold Maine weather altogether and heading south to balmy Mexico. Adult Mourning Cloak and Comma butterflies find some protected shelter and wait out the winter, sometimes secreting chemicals to prevent their bodies from turning into ice cubes. Still other moths and butteflies die in the winter, but not before leaving the next generation behind as eggs or larva in diapause until spring. Finally, some moths are out and about in winter! Kept warm by dense hairs, some sallow, pinion, and other moths can be seen flying around on winter nights. One winter species that Mainers should look out for is the Winter Moth, Operophtera brumata, which was brought to Maine from Europe and is considered a major pest. Learn about what destructive Winter Moths look like and contact the Maine Forest Service if you see them!

Keep an eye out for Winter Moths! Photo: Ilia Ustyantsev / Flickr
Keep an eye out for Winter Moths! (Ilia Ustyantsev / Flickr)

Spiders. Many spiders produce the same kinds of anti-freezing chemicals that moths and other insects produce. Spiders will find a warm spot when it starts to get cold — under some leaves or under bark — and produce some antifreeze to wait out the winter.

Bees. Maine’s bees have the most social winter solution of any of the species we’ve covered. When the temperatures start dropping, bees all enter their hives and huddle around each other in what’s called a “winter huddle.” The constant movement and energy of the bees keeps the hive — and, most importantly, the queen — warm all winter long.

Snow fleas. Maybe the most common winter bug in Maine is also the one you might never know to look for. Snow fleas are a type of creature called a springtail — tiny, soil-living creatures that eat fungi, bacteria, and decaying leaf matter on the forest floor. Snow fleas survive the coldest Maine winters with built-in antifreeze and by staying insulated under the snow. But on sunny days in late winter you may see them on the snow in your boot print. There are billions of them living on forest floors around the state. Maine Audubon board member and Bowdoin College professor Nat Wheelwright made a great Nature Moments video about snow fleas in Maine.

Maine “bugs” aren’t so different from Maine humans: we hunker down for the winter and wait for the warmth. Instead of swatting that mosquito in the spring, take a moment to think about how it’s also just happy to be outside!