DO THIS, NOT THAT – A Homeowner’s Guide to Helping Beneficial Insects (and Birds) Weather the Winter

Fall is upon us with a host of activities, football games, county fairs, and festivals. The smell of autumn greets us on crisp mornings, and we indulge in pumpkin lattes and ginger snap cookies. For us, as well as for nature, it’s a time to prepare for the upcoming winter and for many lean months. It’s a difficult time for the insects and birds that share this space with us, yet there are things that we can do as homeowners, or avid gardeners, to help them out over the coming months.

We humans use the term “beneficial insects” to mean that they are valuable for the services they provide to us, versus pests, which damage things that we want. Nature doesn’t really make the distinction—we do. So when we say beneficial insects, we mean insects that either pollinate (e.g. bees and wasps), control pests for us (e.g. ladybugs), or provide some other service that is in our best interest. We should also include several species of arachnids here. We gardeners, farmers and now a growing body of homeowners find it in our interest to keep their numbers up as well, ensuring that their winter habitat protects them from the elements and predators. There are several things that we can easily do to help them out. Birds also benefit from some help during the winter, as food is scarce and expending energy is costly.

Ways to help insects and birds are many, and the writer of this article suggests that you employ as many as you reasonably can, given your property limitations, other restrictions (e.g. Homeowners Association rules), and your comfort level. It is a process, and you may find that over time you employ more practices. These practices are also great teaching tools for kids to engage them and increase their powers of observation within the natural world.

While there are several things that you can do, I would suggest that a great starting point— fundamental to everything—is to employ native plants, shrubs, and trees as much as you can. It is these indigenous plants that will attract the insects you want to protect. Their presence will also help feed birds throughout the year. Now let’s get started.

Dead stalks and stems – It’s hard, I know, not to cut back those perennials that looked so beautiful in season, yet now look like so many dried sticks with brown heads. Yet it is precisely these dried flower heads that birds will pick at for seeds. I had a container of sunflowers on my deck, and as the individual flowers died, I left them and frequently had goldfinches stopping by for a snack. Supplement seeds on plants with a high-quality bird food with high fat content. Black-oil sunflower seeds and suet are great additions to your feeders to help the birds take in calories to sustain them.

Many insects will either hibernate within and/or lay eggs. Overwintering larvae, nymphs, eggs and pupae can use the foliage to grow and hatch next spring.

As insects may either hibernate or lay eggs in hollow or pithy stalks of wildflowers, pruning should be done in late winter. Leave the cut stems with differing diameters to various heights between 8 inches and 24 inches from the ground—new plant growth will hide them quickly. Specialist bees are picky about the diameter, so having many sizes encourages diversity. Bees could also hatch out of the portions of last year’s stalks that you cut off, so bundle them together and place them upright in a container or against a support. The specialist bees will hatch in early spring to collect pollen and nectar for about a month from early blooming trees such as cherries, plums, and serviceberries. They will begin laying their eggs in the standing and cut stems that you left, if all goes as planned, as soon as their host trees bloom.

The Xerces Society recommends also pruning 4-6 inches from a branch or stem node of trees and shrubs, also in late winter. Store the cut branches as you did the perennial stems for later emerging insects.

Tree branches and brush, plant log, snag, or brush pile – All of these items provide shelter for both insects and birds and can be a haven for birds escaping predators. You may want to dedicate a small space on your property to place dead logs or branches, preferably hardwood with bark still on it. As insects begin burrowing through the dead log, they create perfect havens for other insects to overwinter. According to the Xerces Society, “…fallen logs also provide a plethora of resources for insects. The moist spaces under logs and behind peeling bark are attractive to spiders, ground beetles (Carabidae), and other insect predators, while bees and butterflies are more likely to nest and overwinter in dryer parts of logs.”

You can go further by building a brush pile. Start with larger logs on the bottom of the pile, then build up with smaller branches, sticks and twigs. Build them anywhere from 2-8 feet high, and be sure to leave plenty of air space. This will truly provide a haven for many insects, and as mentioned before, a hiding place for birds. As the brush pile begins to collapse, you can add more—or consider, as spring approaches, creating what is known as a hügelkultur garden. Here’s how: When the brush pile has served its purpose, sprinkle soil and/or compost, and add mulch with plants or seeds to create a natural bed. There are lots of resources on the web for how to optimize a hügelkultur garden. These gardens hold moisture, build fertility, maximize surface volume, and are great spaces for growing fruit, vegetables and herbs.

Rock pile or rock walls – These serve a function similar to brush piles and are places for insects to hibernate. Leafcutter bees, tunnel-nesting bees, bumblebees, and beetles all use these areas. Stack the rocks in a not-so-regular manner and consider incorporating grass into the stack. Planting pollinator- friendly flowers around the pile will attract pollinators to it.

Leave leaf litter – The expression “Leave the leaves” has become quite popular over the past few years. In our area and colder climates, most butterflies and moths use leaf litter for winter protection of eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises, or adults. Some queen bumblebees rely solely on leaf litter for protection. This does not have to mean that you avoid raking leaves altogether. A thin layer of leaves on your lawn will serve to fertilize it as well as offer insects protection. You don’t want to smother the lawn, so if you do this, keep the layer thin. If you must rake your lawn area, then consider leaving leaf litter in other areas of your garden such as flower and vegetable beds, or at the base of trees.

How do birds benefit? Well, where there are bugs there is food, and the more caterpillars that emerge, the more food is available for hungry young mouths in the spring. When you realize that chickadees need about 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to raise one clutch of eggs, you begin to sense the scale of insects needed to sustain our feathered neighbors.

While we’re on the topic of leaf litter, also consider how you use mulch. It’s difficult for insects to reach the soil through a heavy layer of mulch. Consider using a thinner layer, or mulch just the front of a bed. Almost 70% of our native bees nest in the ground, so access to the soil is important.

Finally, delay your spring clean-up if possible. Give your beneficial insects a chance to hatch. Ideally, it would be great if you could implement all these suggestions, but that may not be practical or realistic for your situation. Even if you can’t do it all, do something—it will have a positive impact. If every homeowner in a development does something, it will make a difference. We are past the point of thinking it’s someone else’s problem to fix. You need to take some action.

Barbara Beck, Richland Township Bird Town Leader