Butterflies are insects known for their large often beautifully patterned and colorful wings. They are also well-known for their four-stage life cycle. Butterflies lay eggs that hatch into larva, or what are commonly referred to as caterpillars. Once the caterpillar gets its fill of plant leaves, it enters its pupa stage, spinning itself in to a chrysalis. While in the chrysalis, the caterpillar is going through metamorphosis, emerging from the chrysalis as a butterfly Butterflies are often symbols of spring and summer. However, it is rare to see a butterfly in the winter. Where do butterflies go in the winter?

A blue tiger butterfly on a pink coxcomb flower The butterfly hs black outlines filled in with light vivid blue. most go the blur acres are teardrop shaped. The background is most green, out of focus coxcomb foliage with pink accents .
Butterflies are often associated with spring and summer.

iStock.com/Dmitrii Melgunov (Ritam)

Where Do Butterflies Go In Cold Weather?

The answer to this question is a bit different for each species. However, there are a few common winter behaviors for these winged insects.

Migration to Warmer Weather

Perhaps the most famous migrating butterfly is the monarch. In North America, Monarch butterflies from east of the Rocky Mountains travel all the way down to Michoacán, a state located on Mexico’s Southern Coast. These orange and black butterflie start their migration in August. reaching Michoacán in November. Monarchs west of the Rockies travel to the California coastline. Because of their short lifespan, the migration back to their breeding grounds can take two generations, though they do make the journey back to Mexico in one generation. Even though this species’ journey is highly publicized, it’s actually quite rare. According to biologists, most types of butterflies stay where they are and do not migrate for the winter.

monarch butterfly on a Shasta daisy,  a flower with oblong white petals and a circular yellow center. The butterfly is primarily orange outlined with black. Edge of wings is black with white dots.
Perhaps the most famous migrating butterfly is the monarch..

iStock.com/Elenathewise

Living in a Warmer Climate

Some butterflies simply live in a warmer climate and don’t need to do anything at all for the winter. Examples of species that stay in place include the buckeye butterfly and the painted lady butterfly. However, once there is a drop in the temperature, these butterflies die.

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Hibernation

Some butterfly species have a period of hibernation built into their lifecycles. These species of butterflies chemicals in their bodies called glycols that act as an antifreeze in their blood, preventing them from freezing to death in temperatures as low as 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

For example, buckeyes lay their eggs on a leaf or stick. The eggs are designed to withstand winter weather. Once temperatures warm up, the larvae hatch near their food source: leaves!

a yellow, orange, white, and black butterfly laying  spherical yellow eggs on bright green leaf.
Some butterflies lay their eggs on sticks or leaves.

jakrit yuenprakhon/Shutterstock.com

Still, others hibernate in leafy debris at the bottom of trees, seed pods, under rocks, or in soil during their caterpillar stage. When caterpillars hibernate, it is called diapause. During diapause, their metabolism slows down significantly, and all non-essential functions are stopped. When the caterpillars emerge in the spring they start to eat and prepare for the chrysalis stage. According to experts, the majority of hibernating butterflies do so in the larval (caterpillar) stage.

Other butterfly species, like the swallowtail, spend the winter cozy in their chrysalis, emerging in the spring. In general, butterflies in chrysalises cease to develop during the winter. However, once temperatures warm up, their development resumes, emerging from their winter homes as a butterflies.

Some butterfly species, like the mourning cloak, hibernate as an adults. They slip into the loose bark of trees or into crevices in logs and enter diapause, like caterpillars. They emerge when the temperature warms up.

A black swallowtail butterfly rests on a yellow and red zinnia flower, a red zinnia next to it. Background composed of green zinnia leaves.
Swallowtails spend the winter cozy in their chrysalis, emerging in the spring.

Melody Mellinger/Shutterstock.com

Living it Up In the Winter

There is one species of moth, the winter moth, that has its most active adult stage of life in the winter! The females of this unique species emerge after the year’s first frost and walk up a tree (they can’t fly). Males then fly around to find their mate and fertilize their eggs, which hatch in early spring.

How to Help Butterflies Make it Through the Winter

Did you know that you can actually have a hand in helping butterflies get through the winter? Experts say that how you landscape your yard in the fall and winter can have an effect. having a butterfly friendly yard, will reward you in the form of beautiful winged friends on the first warm days of spring. Here are some tips to follow for a butterfly-friendly environment:

  • Avoid raking dead leaves in the fall. This gives larvae a place to hide in the winter.
  • Instead of clearing out your garden’s dead plants until spring, leave them to winter over for even more larvae protection.
  • Don’t use pesticides.
  • Don’t disturb chrysalises that you find in a shed or garage. They sometimes appear to be dead material, but what’s inside can be very much alive!
  • Do some research. Find out which butterflies live in your area and how they spend the winter. You can then plant butterfly-friendly plants to create a butterfly haven for the winter right in your own yard.

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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Where do butterflies go in the winter?

Some butterflies migrate, while others stay in warmer climates year-round. Other butterfly species hibernate for the winter in various stages of their lifecycle.

Where do monarch butterflies go when they migrate?

Monarch butterflies from the east of the Rocky Mountains travel from their northern locations all the way down to Michoacan, Mexico. monarchs west of the Rockies travel to the California coastline.

When do monarch butterflies migrate south?

They start their migration in August and reach their destination by November.

What is diapause?

During this process, an animal or insect’s metabolism slows down significantly, and all non-essential functions are stopped. This usually happens in the winter.

How can I help butterflies make it through the winter?

  • Avoid raking dead leaves in the fall. This gives larvae a place to hide in the winter.
  • In the same vein, instead of clearing out your garden’s dead plants until spring, leave them to winter over for even more larvae protection.
  • Don’t use pesticides in your gardening practices.
  • Don’t disturb chrysalises that you find in a shed or garage. They sometimes appear to be dead material, but what’s inside can be very much alive!
  • Do some research. Find out which butterflies live in your area and how they spend the winter. You can then plant butterfly-friendly plants to create a butterfly haven for the winter right in your own yard.

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