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Monday, November 14, 2016

It is Cold Outside. Where did all the Butterflies Go?

Great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele)
Its tiny caterpillars will survive the winter
© Beatriz Moisset
Winter has arrived. What happened to all the six legged creatures we saw in summer? Where did the crawling, scuttling, flitting, buzzing multitudes go? Those of us who live in temperate and colder climates notice the disappearance of practically all insects when the weather gets cold. We are talking about the ones that live outdoors, not about those aggravating creatures that have found their ways into our houses and turned them into their homes.

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta), one of the travelers
© Beatriz Moisset
We may think that all outdoor insects die with the arrival of cold weather. In fact, most of them do, but not before producing the next generation. Their eggs, or their young –larvae or pupae– lay low until the weather is propitious again for daily activities. Others pack their belongings and leave for warmer climates. Still a few others spend the whole winter hiding underground or under tree bark or merely under a pile of dead leaves. Some of our favorite butterflies illustrate each one of these three strategies.


1. Most adult butterflies die, the next generation lives on

Fritillaries and hummingbird moths are among the ones that die at the end of summer. The great spangled fritillary, Speyeria Cybele, scatters her eggs almost recklessly at the end of summer in spots that are likely to be blanketed by violets next spring. The eggs hatch into tiny caterpillars which have just enough energy to bury themselves a little deeper under garden debris and wait for the spring when their favorite food –violets– sprouts again.

Hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe)
It will spend the winter as pupa under dead leaves
© Beatriz Moisset
The hummingbird moth uses a slightly different strategy. It lays its eggs during the summer, so the caterpillars have enough time and food to reach full size by the fall. At that point they drop to the ground, bury themselves under leaf litter, turn into pupae and await the next warm season.

Woolly bears or Isabella moths (Pyrractia isabella)
amicably sleeping under bark in January
© Beatriz Moisset
We have all seen the fat, furry coated woolly bears in the fall. They are the fully grown caterpillars of one of the tiger moths, the Isabella moth. They move to a gallop on the ground in search of something. That something isn’t food; instead, it is a place under bark or leaf litter where they can sleep cozily until the next spring.

Banded hairstreak (Satyrium calanus)
It will pass the winter as eggs
© Beatriz Moisset
A pretty little butterfly, the banded hairstreak, is an example of one that spends the winter as an egg. Hairstreaks get their name for the two hair-like or antenna-like projections of their back wings. Hungry birds get confused, not knowing which end is which and end up with a mouthful of wing. This allows the butterfly to escape with only minor damage, instead of losing its head.

2. A few migrate to warmer climates

Painted lady (Vanessa cardui)
a long distance traveler
© Beatriz Moisset
Now, for the travelers in search of warmer weather: The first one that comes to mind is the monarch butterfly. We all know about its long trek to the mountains of Mexico. Many websites provide abundant information about their long journey, much of it gathered by monarch lovers, not just by scientists.

Common buckeye (Junonia coenia)
on seaside goldenrod in New Jersey
A traveler in its way south
© Beatriz Moisset
It may surprise you that the monarch is not the only traveler among butterflies. The red admiral, the painted lady, the common buckeye and the cloudless sulphur are among the migrants that head from northern United States or even from Canada all the way to southern states and as far as Mexico and Central America. Some of their itineraries rival those of the monarch. However, we still don’t know much about their travels. Some members of the mentioned species stay in southern states year round and don’t venture far, while their adventurous brothers and sisters cover large distances. Some engage in pilgrimages in large numbers only some years but not others. I wish we knew as much about all of them as we do about the monarch.

Cloudless sulphur (Phoebis sennae)
A long distance traveler
© Lynette Elliott
3. Even fewer hunker down and wait for spring to come

Finally, a handful of species use a different strategy. The adults find a quiet and secure place where to stay safe until the first signs of warmth in the air. Mourning cloaks and comma butterflies belong to this category. This is why they are the first butterflies to be seen in the spring. They may show up before winter is over before any flowers have started blooming. Here, in southeastern Pennsylvania I have seen mourning cloaks as early as February. Lucky for them, they prefer tree sap and rotten fruit to nectar.

Mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)
taking advantage of a warm day in February
© Beatriz Moisset
Mourning cloaks have a rich brown color with a white rim and a series of blue dots along the back edge of the wings. It is said that it resembles a cape that mourners used to wear years ago. All they need in winter is a secluded place, which surprisingly may happen to be in plain sight as illustrated in the article Wildlife Garden Visitor – Mourning Cloak.

Eastern comma (Polygonia comma)
getting ready for winter in October
© Beatriz Moisset
The eastern comma butterfly’s wings have ragged edges and the colors of fallen leaves. The ones born in the spring die before summer is over. The ones born during the summer look slightly different, with a frosty rim along the far edge. They sleep quietly all winter, hiding among dead leaves camouflaged by their colors and shape.

In summary, as mentioned several times by members of this blog, gardening for butterflies must include winter habitat, such as dead leaves, debris, even piles of dead logs.

Here are a few articles that deal with winter habitat for butterflies: (ed. note: links to the archived sites load slowly.)


© 2013, Beatriz Moisset. First published in Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens