Baby, it’s Cold Outside: What to do with Late Season Butterflies?

A frequent question this time of year:  what to do with a late season butterfly?

Crazy, unpredictable weather has become routine.  “Fall” is an extension of a lesser summer while “Winter” constitutes cool evenings and days punctuated by sunshine and temperatures that climb into the 70s.  For mariposistas–those of us who love butterflies and enjoy raising them at home–the blending of the seasons is a mixed bag.

Queens on sponges

Baby, it’s cold outside: soak scrubbers in Gatorade so butterflies can fuel up for when the weather turns. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Here’s the good news:  as long as host plant is available, butterflies will lay eggs, resulting in caterpillars and future flyers.  That means more butterflies, even in November and December.

The tough part comes when the butterflies hatch and it’s freezing outside.  Generally, butterflies won’t fly when temperatures are less than 55 or 60 degrees.  And after spending weeks fostering an egg, then a caterpillar, and finally a chrysalis to the point of becoming a butterfly, the idea of unleashing it into a cold, wintery wind seems brutally unacceptable.

Unfortunately, when weather turns harsh for butterflies, we can’t all take the route of Maraleen Manos-Jones, the “butterfly lady” of Shokan, New York.  Last November,   Manos-Jones convinced Southwest Airlines to fly her and a late season Monarch to San Antonio so the creature might have a better chance of joining her butterfly siblings to  roost in the mountains of Michoacán for the winter. Read that amazing story here.  

Just last week, I experienced a similar conundrum:  a dozen Queen chrysalises had hatched from eggs collected in late October.  But as they emerged and readied for flight, a serious cold front hit San Antonio, dropping temperatures into the 30s.

Cold weather for butterflies

Brrrrr. Too cold to release freshly hatched butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The cold spell would remain for several days–and then, temperatures would climb into the 70s.  What to do with the butterflies in the meantime?  They had to eat.

I brought in cut flowers and laid out a spread of overripe fruit in the butterfly cage.   Cotton balls soaked in sugar-water and apple juice were strewn on shallow dishes.

The butterflies refused my nectar feast.

On day three, I turned to my butterfly breeder friend Connie Hodson of Flutterby Gardens in Florida.  Connie has raised tens of thousands of butterflies and has moody weather in Tampa Bay similar to ours in South Texas.

Hodson recommended sponges–scrubbers, actually–soaked in grape- or punch-flavored Gatorade laid out in shallow dishes in the butterfly cage. Since butterflies taste with their feet, you have to set them on the sponge so they can “taste” the fake nectar, whetting their appetite.   At that point, they will extend their long proboscis and slurp some fuel to power their flight.

Queens in the cage

Queens said “no thanks” to my offerings of fruit, flowers and sugar water. Photo by Monika Maeckle

If the butterflies resist the sponge or scrubber, Hodson suggests taking a Q-tip, dipping it in the Gatorade and gently touching the creatures’ proboscis so they get the hang of it.

“They’re not hungry for the first 24 – 48 hours,” Hodson assured me by phone.  “Give it a try.”

I did, and it worked.  Two days after the Gatorade buffet, temperatures climbed into the high 60s.  On that sunny Friday, I took the cages outside, unzipped the door, and off they went.

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