Illustration of a butterfly in a field of grasses in winter.

Where Do Butterflies Go In Winter?

  Where do butterflies hang out in the winter?

  Do all butterflies die?

  Do all butterflies fly south?

The answer is simple: it depends upon the species of butterfly about which you are asking. Some enter diapause, freeze, and live through temperatures well below 32 degrees F.

Butterflies can fly and feed safely in temperatures above 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Like all insects, their bodies contain chemical compounds known as glycols, which help them endure cold weather. The glycerol in their body prevents ice crystals from forming. If ice crystals were to form, they would rupture cells and the butterflies would die. Once the snow starts falling however, they'll need a plan to survive harsh winter conditions!

Butterfly Overwintering Strategies

  Two-way migration: Adult migrates from Wisconsin to Central Mexico
  Small migration: Adult migrates from Wisconsin to southern US
  Immigrant: Adult migrates into Wisconsin from warmer areas and don't fly south in winter
  Adult Butterfly: Hibernates overwinter as an adult butterfly
  Eggs: Eggs laid on stems, twigs or foot plants overwinter in diapause
  Caterpillar: Caterpillars make nests on the base of plants and hibernate until spring
  Chrysalis: Caterpillars shed their last skin, form a chrysalis and enter diapause.

Even though most butterflies have a short life span — ranging from a week to a month — some do live longer. Many of these species migrate to warmer climates when it gets cold.

HELP BUTTERFLIES: Provide Over-wintering Habitat

If don’t cut down your faded plants in the fall and leave them until temperatures warm in the spring, they can survive the winter and emerge in your garden! In spring, when longer days and temperatures warm, butterflies come out of winter diapause.

  Monarchs Butterflies: Our Only Migratory Butterfly

Butterflies overwinter
as an egg.

Monarchs, which may live up to 9 months and travel long distances, provide stiff competition. They are unique in that they are the only butterfly that makes a 2-way migration, much like birds.
Around October when temperatures drop and food sources decline, the monarchs will travel 3,000 miles or more to their overwintering sites.
West of the Rockies, they go to small grove trees in California near Santa Cruz and San Diego.
East of the Rockies, millions of monarchs find their way to their winter sites in Mexico and the Michoacán highlands.

  Butterfly Hibernation

Butterflies overwinter as chrysalis
Butterflies survive the winter as chrysalis.

Some butterflies hibernate during the colder months, although this isn't strictly true; actually, they enter a period of dormancy, although the effect of sleeping through winter is the same.
They can do this in several ways: as an egg, larva, chrysalis or in adult form, dependent on species.
This isn't simply a random choice or a technique to keep warm, but is a way of ensuring that the insect's awakening in the spring corresponds with the peak availability of its main food source.
Most butterflies lie dormant in larval stage, while pupation is the next most common strategy.
Eggs and adults come next in order of commonality, although some species are able to overwinter in more than one form.

Diapause is the delay in development during periods of adverse environmental conditions. The strategy is a means of surviving predictable, unfavorable environmental conditions.

Butterfly Overwintering Strategies: The Details

1. Adult Butterflies

Eastern Comma Butterfly Butterflies that remain in cold-winter areas as adults find safe places to rest, like cracks in rocks or tree bark, and enter a state known as diapause. This is essentially a kind of hibernation for bugs, where butterflies shut down all their non-essential systems like reproduction and slow their metabolism dramatically. Special chemicals in their bodies work as anti-freeze, and the butterfly remains dormant until warmer weather arrives. These are usually the last butterflies to be seen in an area each fall, and the first to reappear in the spring. For example:

  Compton Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis vau-album)
  Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma)
  Gray Comma (Polygonia progne)
  Milbert's Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis milberti)
  Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)
  Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis)

2. Eggs

Butterfly Eggs Perhaps the most vulnerable species are those who spend the winter as eggs, usually laid in late fall in the leaf litter at the base of the host plant. These eggs will hatch in the spring when the host plant has put on new growth. For example:

  Banded Hairstreak (Satyrium calanus)
  Bronze Copper (Lycaena hyllus)
  Coral Hairstreak (Satyrium titus)
  Edward's Hairstreak (Satyrium edwardsii)
  European Skipper (Thymelicus lineola)
  Striped Hairstreak (Satyrium liparops)

3. Caterpillars

Other species spend the winter as caterpillars, buried deep in leaf litter or soil or rolled into a shelter of leaves. They also enter a state of diapause. In the spring, these caterpillars don’t re-emerge until their host plants have begun growing, so many of them use early spring wildflowers or budding tree leaves as hosts. For example:

  Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele cybele)
  Black Swallowtail Chrysalis
  Dreamy Duskywing (Erynnis icelus)
  Eastern Tailed Blue (Everes Comyntas)
  Juvenal's Duskywing (Erynnis juvenalis)
  Least Skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor)

4. Chrysalis

Painted Lady Chrysalis Butterflies who spend the winter in chrysalis find a sheltered place like overhangs or deep shrubbery. The chrysalis, like the adult and caterpillar, stops development over the winter months and contains special chemicals to keep from freezing. When the warmer weather returns and the days lengthen, development resumes in the chrysalis and the adult butterfly emerges in time for fresh blooms on nectar plants. For example:

  Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)
  Delaware Skipper (Anatrytone logan)
  Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)
  Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)
  Hobomok Skipper (Poanes hobomok)
  Tawny-edged Skipper (Polites themistocles)

Further Information:

 Butterflies and Moths of North America
 Southern Wisconsin Butterfly Assn (NABA)
 The Butterfly Site

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