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Leave the Leaves for the Insects

Leave the Leaves for the Insects

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

Ah, autumn. The earthy smell of fallen leaves, the crunch underfoot, the healthy exercise of raking. Fall is many American’s favorite time of year. We Americans also like clean, neat yards, so whether it’s grinding them up to fertilize our lawns, shredding them to make leaf compost or mulch, or discarding them entirely, we are conscientious when it comes to getting rid of our leaves. However, this desire for order comes at the expense of other living creatures, and we might want to consider slightly adjusting our ways and leaving some leaves for the insects.

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Red banded hairstreak butterfly photographed by Melissa McMasters, Memphis, TN. CC BY 2.0,

Blowing, bagging, burning, or otherwise disposing of leaves can leave insect populations without winter shelter or sources of food. Over time this leads to declining populations of caterpillars, bees, springtails and other bugs, a number of them beneficial to our gardens. Butterflies and moths overwinter in leaf litter in every stage of development: as eggs and caterpillars, in chrysalises and cocoons, and as adults. Some, like the red banded hairstreak butterfly, lays its eggs on oak leaves that the caterpillars eat when they hatch in the spring.

It’s not just butterflies, however. Lots of the less charismatic insects, such as spiders, snails, and millipedes also overwinter in leaf litter. We may not find them as appealing, but they fill an important role as a food source for birds, animals, and other insects. Creatures from bees to toads to salamanders spend the coldest months burrowed in the ground. A thick layer of leaves over their holes keeps weather at bay.

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The Xerces Society, an international non-profit organization whose aim is to “protect the natural world through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitats” even has a program that encourages people to “leave the leaves.”

What To Know:

  • Burning, shredding, and bagging leaves for the trash kills bugs and destroys habitat.
  • Don’t get rid of all your fall leaves. If you must get them off the grass, rake them into piles in inconspicuous areas around your yard. 
  • Whole leaves are better habitat for bugs than shredded.
  • To create habitat that won’t blow away, rake leaves and yard detritus into low piles and cover with sheets of plastic held down with bricks or boards.
  • Pile leaves and pine needles in a spot where they can remain permanently undisturbed. This can create a safe nesting area for solitary bees.
  • Dry leaves offer hiding places and airflow, and wet leaves provide moisture. Both are good.

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Pest control companies will try to sell you on the idea that bugs in leaves are a danger to you and your family, and frame ants and earwigs as pests that should be eradicated. While untrue, if you think a leaf pile near or against your house will bring pests inside, site it in an out-of-the-way place away from the wind.

It's counterintuitive for us to plant butterfly and beneficial insect gardens, attract these insects, and then destroy their winter homes by cleaning up our gardens. There are bugs in leaves. They belong there. Leave the leaves alone and the insects will thank you.

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