Have you ever gazed out of the kitchen window at your beautiful wildlife garden on a cold winter’s day? It looks so barren and lonely. Have you ever wondered where the butterflies go during this time of year?
As humans, we get to bundle up in our fuzzy flannels and spend the winter months indoors all snug in our homes, drinking hot chocolate. But what about the butterflies – our delicate winged wonders?
To Stay or to Go…that is the question
The gradual arrival of cooler nights, combined with the shorter daylight hours of the autumn season, signals all members of the insect kingdom to prepare for the onset of winter. Many of us are familiar with the most famous traveler of the butterfly family, the Monarch. The Monarch butterflies in North America that emerge during the fall season do not attempt to find a mate. Instead, they eat as much nectar as they can, in order to store up energy reserves in their body. Then those that were born East of the Rocky Mountains fly south all the way to Mexico to spend the winter in a warmer climate.
There are other butterflies that also head south for the winter, but they usually only go as far as Texas or Florida. Among these are the Painted Lady, Red Admiral, Buckeye, and American Lady butterflies. When the weather warms up in the spring these butterflies travel back up to the northern states.
Butterflies have four stages of development during their life cycle – egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and adult. A few will tough it out through the winter months as an egg, caterpillar or adult butterfly. But, the majority of the ones that do not head south for the winter will stay put and hibernate in the form of a chrysalis. Swallowtail butterflies use this winter survival technique. They spend all winter as a dormant chrysalis.
Reduced temperatures and shorter day length trigger the bodies of some butterflies to produce different enzymes and chemicals essential for their winter survival, no matter what form they’re in when they hibernate. But many species of butterflies cannot survive temperatures below freezing in any stage of their development. So if they are not yet adults that can fly south to escape winter weather, they will die.
A select few butterflies will spend the entire winter in their adult stage, slowing down their metabolism to hibernate during the harsh winter season. They hide in sheltered areas including under loose tree bark, in wood piles, and other protected places. Some examples of these species are the Question Mark butterfly, the Mourning Cloak, and the Comma butterfly. You may even see one of these butterflies venture out on mild winter days in search of sweet tree sap to drink that melts in the sunshine. They will also sun themselves on rocks or while clinging upside-down on the side of a tree.
Woodpiles are another handy place for these three species of butterflies to hide during cold weather. It is also a site chosen by some swallowtail caterpillars to form their chrysalis. Some homeowners have been surprised to find a butterfly flying around their house in the winter when they store some logs inside their house. When a swallowtail chrysalis warms up it many only take a week or two for the butterfly to be tricked into thinking spring has arrived, and emerge from its winter slumber to fly around your warm house.
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