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Human diapause

Most people know that bears hibernate in cold areas during the winter. It’s a way for them to survive times when there’s a food shortage. But what about insects, a reader recently asked? What happens to all of those bugs we see during the summer that disappear during the cold months?

Like bears, many insects hibernate. Some burrow deep into the earth, below where the soil freezes — called the frost line. Ants do this. Those big ant hills you see in the forest are actually a kind of sun catcher, a way to keep the ants warmer. Similarly, insects that hide under rocks use those stones as big heat collectors to help keep them a little warmer.

Long, cold days can block the sun, though, so some insects go into something called diapause, which is like an insect hibernation. Scientists are interested in figuring out more about this slowed period as a possible way to help astronauts survive long trips in space.

Other bugs produce their own antifreeze to survive the cold. One species actually removes all of the water from its body so that even though it gets very cold, the bug can’t freeze.

Honey bees gather in their hives where they may eat up to 30 pounds of honey to generate heat. Sometimes they even all flap their wings at the same time to stay warm.

Monarch butterflies avoid the cold by flying south in large swarms, spending the winter gathered together clinging to trees in places like Mexico.

Insects are warned about the coming of winter by the shorter days, along with cooler temperatures. Likewise, in the spring they will begin to wake up and be more active as the days grow longer and the weather gets nicer.

— Brett French,

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