1. Alpine streams above the tree line are covered by snow for 6–9 months a year. However, winter dynamics in these streams are poorly known. The annual patterns of macroinvertebrate assemblages were studied in a glacial stream in the Austrian Alps, providing information on conditions under the snow.
2. Snow cover influenced water temperature, the content of benthic organic matter and insect development. Taxa richness and abundance of macroinvertebrates did not show a pronounced seasonal pattern. The duration of the autumn period with stable stream beds was important in determining the abundance and composition of the winter fauna.
3. There were significant differences in species composition between summer and winter. Two potential strategies in larval survival were evident: adaptation to the extreme abiotic conditions in summer (e.g. Diamesa spp.) or avoidance of these conditions and development during winter (e.g. Ephemeroptera and Plecoptera).
4. A comparison of a stream reach with continuous snow cover and a stream reach that remained open throughout winter showed that conditions under snow are suboptimal. At the open stream site, with higher water temperatures and greater food supply (benthic organic matter content), abundance and taxa richness was higher and larval growth was faster. Several taxa were found exclusively at this site.
5. Winter conditions did not provide an entirely homogeneous environment, abiotic conditions changed rapidly, especially at the onset of snowfall and at snowmelt. Continuous monitoring is necessary to recognize spatial and temporal heterogeneity in winter environments and the fauna of alpine streams.