From where do the springtime butterflies come?

You likely learned in grade school, from Heimlich in a Bug’s Life, or from the Very Hungry Caterpillar, that every butterfly undergoes metamorphosis. For all butterflies, this phenomenon involves four distinct stages of development. An individual starts as an egg, breaks out as a caterpillar (or larva), eats leaves until it’s ready to pupate into a chrysalis, and subsequently emerges as an adult butterfly. Adults fly around to mate, feed on flower nectar, and produce the next generation. A successful butterfly not only has to make the transition from egg to larva, pupa, and eventually adult, but in New England, also has to endure six months of cold, harsh conditions. So how do such delicate creatures make it through the winter?

Well, the answer depends on which of New England’s 100+ species of butterflies we consider!

Some butterflies spend the winter as small, immobile, and defenseless eggs. Once such species is the bog copper Lycaena epixanthe which thrives in undisturbed cranberry bogs of New England such as those found on Cape Cod. Adults lay eggs on the bottom of cranberry leaves near the surface of the bog. These eggs are built to withstand not only winter freezes and thaws, but also periodic flooding. Caterpillars break out of their eggs in the spring and begin chowing down on cranberry leaves,  their favorite food. Other gossamer-wing butterflies like Coral Hairstreak Satyrium titus and Oak Hairstreak Satyrium favonius spend the winter as eggs on their favorite trees, black cherry (Prunus serotina) and oaks (Quercus spp.), respectively. Eggs are situated safely in the crevasses of the tree bark and branches, at the roots of the tree, or in the leaf litter surrounding it.

Great Spangled Fritillary. PC: Nick Dorian

The majority of butterflies spend the winter as caterpillars. Typically, these species begin feeding as caterpillars before winter to amass nutrients and fat for the long dormancy ahead. Then, when the weather cools, they find someplace safe from the elements, often underground or in the leaf litter. Other species like Viceroy Limenitis Archippus build their own houses for winter, known as hibernacula, by twirling poplar or willow leaves using silk. Not all species go about it this way though; the Great Spangled Fritillary Speyeria cybele, spends its winter as an unfed larva so that its life cycle is timed with the availability of violets.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. PC: Nick Dorian

Then there are species that spend the winter as a chrysalis. In this intermediary stage between caterpillar and adult, the butterfly completely reorients its body and restructures itself. The chrysalis is a very hardy life stage, which is why all swallowtail butterflies (Papilionidae) spend the winter in this form. Black swallowtails Papilio polyxenes, like many of their relatives, affix their chrysalises to a tree’s bark or branch, held in place by a thin, but strong, thread of silk. Often these dormant individuals will cryptically blend in with the branch or the leaf on which they’re placed. The Canadian tiger swallowtail Papilio canadensis, withstands the winter cold by amassing high concentrations of ethylene glycol in the chrysalis. This compound is such an effective cryoprotectant that it’s the base compound for commercially manufactured antifreeze.

Mourning Cloak. PC: Max McCarthy

Although some butterflies do overwinter as adults in New England, it’s a rare strategy. The most readily seen of these species is the Mourning cloak Nymphalis antiopa. The Mourning cloak is often the first butterfly seen in the year, coming out before snow has fully melted, and even capable of coming out on particularly warm winter days to sun. This is because it has a high concentration of glycerol, another cryoprotectant, which makes it difficult for damaging ice crystals to form in its body. The Eastern Comma Polygonia comma and Question Mark Polygonia interrogationis are two other species which also have the capacity to withstand cold New England winters. These remarkable butterflies will find crevasses in trees, beneath bark, or under rocks and buildings where they will be ready and waiting for the earliest signs of spring to emerge and mate.

And last, but not least, there are also butterflies that choose to avoid the bad weather entirely! There are only two species of migratory butterflies found in New England, which leave for the winter and come back for next year’s spring or summer. The Monarch Danaus plexippus butterfly heads south to the warmer climes of Mexico, where millions of butterflies will gather in massive aggregations in oak-pine forests. The Painted lady Vanessa cardui is another long-distance migrant, though its journey is less directed than that of the Monarch. In Europe, the species is known to embark on transcontinental migrations from the northern parts of Europe to the Sahara Desert. The details of its journey in the eastern United States remains to be known.

The diversity of overwintering approaches among butterflies demonstrates the capacity of small insects to adapt in hostile environments. When you see your first butterfly of the year, consider how they might have managed to make it outside while we’re spending time by the fireplace with hot cocoa. You also might think twice about cleaning up your leaves until the beginning of summer to give butterflies who overwinter there a chance to emerge! For other tips on supporting butterflies and other pollinators, check out our January blog post!

Thanks for a great #PollinatorWeek!

Thank you all for a fun week of pollinator enthusiasm and engagement on social media! We’re closing out the week with a fun video by James, another new member of TPI, on the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly!

Miss any of this week’s fun? Check out the links below!

Monday: Bee hotels and Pollinator BINGO! (all week)
Tuesday: Pollinator-related recipes
Wednesday: Pollinator personalities (a quiz!)
Thursday: A look at our gardens, NEW native shrub planting guide
Friday: Planting herbs for pollinators (plus a recipe!)

Save the date for next year’s Pollinator Week plant sale, where you can purchase a pollinator-friendly plant, many of which we have grown from seed!

Which pollinator are you?

Written by: Sylvie Finn, one of our newest TPI members!

It’s National Pollinator Week, so in an effort to learn about our diverse pollinators, take this quick quiz to see which pollinator is in your personality!

Directions: This is an old school keep-track-yourself type of quiz. Think personality quiz in a tween magazine. Grab a piece of scrap paper, keep track of how many A’s, B’s, C’s, etc you have, and at the end you will be able to discover something fabulous about yourself.

1. Imagine you step into your dream house. You look around and see:

A. Ornate geometric patterns
B. Sophisticated plaster work all around
C. The house you’re sitting in right now!
D. This is a hard question…I’d rather have two totally different and exciting homes
E. As long as there’s a stacked pantry, I’m happy!
F. Something I build myself to my liking

2. Your friends would describe you as:

A. Hardworking
B. Friendly
C. High strung
D. A social butterfly
E. Loyal
F. Hyper

3. On a Saturday night, you can be found:

A. Out on the town with “the girls”
B. Working in your basement
C. At a dive bar with your buddies hovering around the peanut and pretzel bowls at the bar
D. Getting your beauty rest
E. Cuddled up with a good book
F. Indulging in your sweet tooth

4. Your personal style is:

A. Whatever your friends are wearing
B. Stripes!
C. All black every day
D. Bold color choices
E. Give me that fuzzy sweater
F. Metallics anyone?

5. Your favorite color is:

A. Yellow
B. Blue
C. White
D. Pink
E. Ultraviolet
F. Red

6. You get to the park and someone is sitting on your favorite bench, you:

A. Take a seat, there’s room for two
B. Decide that going to the park was a horrible idea
C. Linger in front of the bench until the person sitting there becomes uncomfortable and leaves
D. Go to another bench, there are plenty of benches to go around
E. What person? I see a bench, I sit
F. I don’t have this problem, no one likes the kinds of benches I do

7. Your dream vacation:

A. Take me to a new city! I love a buzzing metropolis
B. Exploring a cave with your pals
C. An all-inclusive resort just for the all-you-can-eat buffet
D. Mountains of Mexico, please and thank you
E. Stay-cation works for me, as long as there are snacks
F. Take me anywhere ~TroPiCaL~

8. For your birthday this year, you want:

A. A big party with all of my of friends and acquaintances
B. A small party with only my closest friends
C. To be left alone
D. To fly in the sky! Paragliding? Skydiving?
E. To make sure those around me are well fed
F. To go on an adventure somewhere new

Time to find out which pollinator you are…

MOSTLY A’s: Honey bee (Apis mellifera)

You are the “gold” standard for bees. Known for your incredible social intelligence and honey making skills, you are very hardworking and constantly referenced. You’re a total feminist, loving to live in female-dominated society.

Photo: Rachael E. Bonoan, Flickr
MOSTLY B’s: Cellophane bee (Colletes spp.)

You are an aesthetic architect. You are literally named after the materials you build with and are fashionable in your stripes and fluff. You like your alone time, but enjoy sharing experiences with friends when the time is right.

Photo: Team Colletes, Flickr
MOSTLY C’s: Hover fly (e.g. Eristalis transversa)

You are one of the lesser known pollinators and you like it that way. Your fast paced lifestyle keeps others on edge and you always stay unconventional.

flower fly, hover fly
Photo: Team Colletes, Flickr
MOSTLY D’s: Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

You are the poster child of all butterflies. Like a monarch, you are elegant and have very specific taste. You also are a total travel junky and love to go to new places beyond what your imagination can hold.

monarch butterfly
Photo: Nick Dorian
MOSTLY E’s: Bumble bee (Bombus spp.)

You are everyone’s best friend, smart and oh so sweet. You know how to cuddle up with a good book, but when you think theres some good food somewhere, you can zoom there quite quickly.

Photo: Team Colletes, Flickr
MOSTLY F’s: Ruby throated humming bird (Archilochus colubris)

You are many people’s favorite birds and a very special pollinator. While there are hundreds of species of humming birds in the tropics, you are the only one to grace us here in the North East. If people can catch a glimpse of you, you always dazzle them.

Photo: Michael Janke, Flickr