Butterflies that hibernate

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Butterflies that hibernate

It’s strange but true that some British butterflies hibernate whilst others migrate across the English Channel to warmer climes for winter.

Butterflies have different strategies to cope with winter in their short adult lives of approximately nine months. Some adult butterflies hibernate, some migrate whilst others may stay in the chrysalis stage before pupating into adulthood.

In March you may see peacock butterflies and small tortoiseshell butterflies. Finding Brimstone butterflies in mild winters is not unusual – even in January.

Nectar is provided to pollinating insects such as butterflies and bees.  Honey bees collect nectar to feed their young and make honey. Therefore the flowers around us must provide a large output of nectar to feed pollinating insects that rely upon them. It’s another marvel of nature.

During late autumn hibernating butterflies search for sheltered dark places safe from frost. It is not unusual to find butterflies hibernating in a garden shed. Gently transport to a garden shed or garage a hibernating butterfly you find in your home when the heating is switched on.

If you awake a peacock butterfly they may make an impressive alarm hissing sound whilst opening their wings. This sound can frighten predators. The ‘eye’ pattern on their wings are also to frighten predators.

When the peacock butterfly awakes from her hibernation in the spring she will lay her eggs on the underside of stinging nettles which is her caterpillars’ sole food plant. The small tortoiseshell butterfly caterpillars also feed on stinging nettles.

As gardeners it is always a good idea to leave some nettles for the peacock and tortoiseshell butterflies.  If you have a buddleia to feed nectar to the adults you are sure to have a garden full of beautiful peacock butterflies and small tortoiseshell butterflies. Small tortoiseshell butterflies will also lay eggs again in August.

The life cycle of small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies

When tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies emerge from hibernation in early spring the butterflies will feed for a few days to gain strength and energy. Soon they will seek stinging nettles to lay eggs.


When the butterfly eggs hatch into caterpillars they get together to form a group and spin around themselves a silk tent where they will all live and feed.

When the caterpillars have eaten and grown sufficiently to undergo metamorphosis they will seek a branch of a tree or other suitable place. Whilst hanging upside down they will turn into a chrysalis for a few weeks and pupate into an adult butterfly.

The adult butterflies will seek a mate and to lay eggs after which they will die. For a few brief months, we see beautiful butterflies grace our summer months but we may also find them asleep in the most unexpected places during winter.

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