What is that pile of junk and brush in my garden?
It’s a winter hotel – a place for insects and small critters like toads and garden snakes to find shelter. They need a place to keep out the winter cold and protection against predators.
Many butterflies, bees, beetles, ladybugs and other insects want a home for the winter. For example, there are three species of butterflies that overwinter as adults in our area, and they have to find a place to hibernate. This question mark butterfly will emerge in the spring to lay eggs for the next generation.
When fall arrives in Forest Hills, we usually rake up the leaves and cut down the garden plants. The ecologists are urging us to be more messy. Insects, toads, snakes, field mice and other small animals welcome a wintering place. Then they will reproduce and carry on the species in the spring.
But insects are pests, aren’t they?
Some are, but most are beneficial. Every insect is an essential part of the ecology, close to the base of the food chain. They chew up plants, live and dead, and make them into compost. At least seven different kinds of insects pollinate our crops and gardens. And, they are a major food source for many creatures higher up on the food chain – a main meal for birds, snakes, lizards, bats, dragonflies, ants, and other insects. Coyotes and foxes love grasshoppers.
Hotel construction starts!
To start the hotel, I saved a pile of the plants we had ripped up when we were clearing the garden. The leaves and stems of these dead plants may contain beneficial insect and spider eggs or cocoons waiting for the spring.
A neighbor gave me six bricks to use as a partial base. I left spaces between them for caterpillars, beetles or whatever to crawl into. Some beetles live over the winter – others overwinter as eggs.
I also added leaves – insects like bumblebees are very partial to leaf litter. A bumblebee colony dies in the fall, but one mated queen survives to live over the winter and carry on the species. Next spring she will emerge and find a spot to lay eggs for a new colony. She likes to burrow into leaf litter or find a tiny crevice.
I have an American toad in the yard, and I wanted to make sure it had a place to hibernate. Animals like toads, frogs, lizards, field mice and garden snakes need space, so I placed several firewood logs from a neighbor’s woodpile. Some other insects will drill holes in these logs for their home.
Ladybugs eat thousands of aphids in your garden in the summer. For winter they like a container with twigs like rosebush cuttings. Other insects look for a hollow stem, so we cut up and bundled a stalk of the bamboo which grows across the street.
On top, to keep out rain, we put a broken terra cotta saucer which I found in someone’s trash, with holly clippings for a Christmas touch. You can see that the hotel will be comfy. It is sited next to a sunny wall where it should be warmer on good days.
Now, we will wait to see what moves in.
Making a hotel is a bit of work. A compost pile is an easy substitute, sort of an insect Motel 6. It’s attractive to all sorts of animal life, particularly if it has both green plant stuff and dead leaves and brush. Green kitchen waste is okay.
There are millipedes, slugs, snails and earthworms in your compost pile already. Some of the insects and the small animals already mentioned in this article might prefer this compost heap to the hotel. That decaying plant stuff and leaf litter is moist, and decay provides warmth in the center.
The insect Waldorf Astoria
The British build elaborate winter hotels with a wide variety of pricey suites. The slot at the bottom of this could accommodate the little British hedgehog and also provides an entry for snakes and mice.
We don’t need to get that fancy. Just leave some of the leaves on your beds, make a pile of brush if you have it, and leave the garden plants to be cut back next spring. The local insects will thank you.