We almost forget about our colorful friends of summer as we’re lured inside by our furnaces and fireplaces. Where do butterflies go during wintertime? They are still in our gardens! Most of our butterflies hibernate in our gardens throughout winter. They are just hiding out very well. There are some species that do migrate to warmer climates.
Most people may know the story about the Monarch butterfly and its migration. The Monarchs are really unique when it comes to the extent of their migration to Mexico from October to March.
The species that stay to hibernate throughout winter will do so in different life stages. These stages are either in egg, chrysalis, caterpillar, or adult butterfly and are unique to each species.
Butterflies that hibernate in the egg stage are the most vulnerable to not making it through winter. In the fall, the adults lay eggs at the base of plants, often around in the leaf litter lying below. This is likely to be done at the base of that butterfly’s host plant. When the egg hatches in the spring, it is then already at the host plant it needs to eat to grow.
The chrysalis stage of a butterfly is when it is in its cocoon. Butterflies that overwinter in a chrysalis find sheltered places to hang out such as crevices in trees, wood, rocks, or on/around the dried stem of its host plant. While in the chrysalis, development stops and it uses a chemical like antifreeze to survive freezing temperatures. Development begins again as temperatures warm and it emerges as a butterfly.
Have you ever come across those white grubs in the soil? While those are likely to be Japanese beetle larvae, there are some butterflies that hibernate as caterpillars in the ground and in leaf litter. They will emerge when temperatures begin to warm and feed on host plants. These host are likely to be early spring plants or budding tree leaves.
Adult butterflies who hibernate find shelter in crevices they can find. Like the other stages, they go into a state of diapause, where their systems are on pause and their metabolism lessens. They too use a chemical like anti-freeze to survive. Butterflies you see at the tail end of fall are likely to hibernate as adults. They are usually the first butterflies to emerge in springtime too. They then lay their eggs to continue their generations.
There are some butterflies that do migrate because they cannot survive the colder temperatures of the places they spend the warmer months. These butterflies tend to move to the southern range of their habitat. Monarchs have a migration on a very large scale spending the winter in Mexico, and their future generations reaching up just into Canada by the height of the summer.
What can we do to help butterflies?
If you want to see more butterflies (and birds) around your home, then consider turning your gardening into a ‘living landscape’.
The best thing you can do to help butterflies is to leave your perennials standing until spring and not cleaning up any leaves, especially those sitting around your plants. This creates the habitat butterflies need to live throughout winter. You can also create pollinator houses that have lots of nooks and crannies. Visit my Pinterest Board to see some neat ideas.
- Leave perennials standing into spring, early May is best
- Leave leaf litter in your yard, especially around the base of plants
- Plant nectar plants in early spring and summer
- Plant native plants, especially the ‘host’ plants that the butterflies need. Each species has specific host plants it needs. For example, the Black Swallowtail Butterfly needs those in the carrot family, like dill.
List of Overwintering Butterflies & Their Stages
- Coral Hairstreak (Satyrium titus)
- Purplish Copper (Lycaena helloides)
- Edwards’ Hairstreak (Satyrium edwardsii)
- Eastern Tailed-Blue (Everes comyntas)
- Karner Blue (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) (rare, endangered)
- Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)
- Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon)
- Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)
- Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus)
- Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)
- Canadian Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio canadensis)
- Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus)
- Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)
- Mustard White (Pieris napi)
- Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice)
- Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme)
- Tawny-edged Skipper (Polites themistocles)
- Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele)
- Red Spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis)
- Aphrodite Fritillary (Speyeria aphrodite)
- Atlantis Fritillary (Speyeria atlantis)
- Silver-bordered Fritillary (Boloria selene)
- Meadow Fritillary (Boloria bellona)
- Silvery Checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis)
- Harris’ Checkerspot (Chlosyne harrisii)
- Northern Crescent (Phyciodes cocyta)
- Baltimore (Euphydryas phaeton)
- Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis astyanax)
- White Admiral (Limenitis arthemis arthemis)
- Viceroy (Limenitis archippus)
- Peck’s Skipper (Polites peckius)
- Northern Pearly Eye (Enodia anthedon)
- Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela)
- Common Wood-Nymph (Cercyonis pegala)
- Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)
- Comma (Polygonia comma)
- Gray Comma (Polygonia progne)
- Compton Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis vaualbum)
- Milbert’s Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis milberti)
- Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)
- Common Buckeyes (Junonia coenia)
- Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia)
- American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)
- Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)