web analytics

Take a Kid Winter Bug Watching!

Posted on Feb 10, 2014

Outdoor activity slows down in winter, not just for people, but for plants and animals too. Insects are almost entirely missing from the scene – or are they? They don’t flutter or buzz about our heads on a winter walk, but they’re still present. In fact, their absence can teach children the basics of insect life cycles: though the adults may have vanished, their eggs and larvae have not. Insects are marvelous examples of adaptation to cold weather; many actually create a substance similar to the antifreeze we put in our cars that enables them to avoid freezing solid. And because so many plants are stripped bare of leaves, it can be almost as easy to find insects – or their traces – in February as in July. Let’s take a little tour…


Wasp Nests

Under protective eaves or branches you may find the nests of hornets, yellow jackets and paper wasps. The nests of the first two are large and bulbous, consisting of a series of paper cells enclosed with several gray or brown outer layers. Those of paper wasps are simpler – just a series of open cells under a protective roof. The nests are usually empty in winter, since the only wasps around are the females that will begin next year’s colonies in spring. They overwinter in hidden crevices – but sometimes other insects or spiders will take up residence in the protection of a paper nest.



Galls are distinctive and common winter forms, and many are formed by gall-making insects. They lay their eggs on plants and are distinguished by the protective ball or swelling of plant tissue that subsequently forms around the young insect. The goldenrod gall fly (Eurosta solidaginis) is typical: the adult fly, a quarter of an inch long, lays her egg on a young goldenrod in the spring. The larva crawls into the plant stem, causing the plant to form around it a ball a little less than an inch in diameter. The larva eats and grows, spends the winter in its secure home, and emerges as an adult in spring. Inspect a goldenrod ball gall closely. If you can find one with a small hole, it’s probably one that was vacated in the spring of last year. If it has a cone-shaped excavation the larva may have been found and eaten, perhaps by a chickadee or downy woodpecker.



Many butterfly and moth larvae overwinter in tiny shelters they create in dry leaves. In a number of species the larvae attach a leaf to its stem with silk, so the leaf won’t fall to the ground with all the others. They also use the silk to convert the leaf into a cozy tube or envelope in which they can spend the winter. When the weather turns warmer, they’ll awake and pupate into adult butterflies or moths before emerging to fly around.


Snow Fleas

Snow fleas are among the rare insects that are present and active as adults outdoors in winter. You may find large swarms of these tiny insects – barely big enough to see – dotting the snow around trees and shrubs on relatively warm winter days. Snow fleas (Hypogastrura nivicola) are springtails, wingless insects found in enormous quantities in soil. They feed on decaying plant material and thereby speed up the process of decomposition. Springtails are named for the two appendages projecting down from their abdomen, which enable the insects to jump when alarmed. If you find some, you’ll notice that they are very hard to catch because they can move so fast. Snow fleas mate at the end of winter; the young nymphs feed in their soil all summer, and metamorphose into adults in the fall.


Go Outside!

Go outdoors for an hour or two to hunt for insects and their traces around your home or in a woodlot or weedy field. Dress warmly so you and your kids can observe in comfort. Bring along a hand lens, a pocket knife and some drawing materials. An effective way to find insects is to encourage kids to imagine they are insects. They will need secure places where they will be protected from moisture, wind and predators. Tell them to visualize things from an insect’s point of view, and think small. Look for dried leaves hanging on trees, loose bark on tree trunks or downed logs and dense patches of dried weeds. If a child does find a hidden insect adult, pupa, larva or egg, discuss the find with him or her. How effective is its home? Is it protected enough? What’s the first thing that would happen here in spring? Encourage the joy of discovery; remember that stimulating children’s excitement about the outdoors is far more important than being able to name or classify everything you find.

Mark Baldwin
Director of Education