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.  

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

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.

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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39 Responses

  1. Vaughn p
    | Reply

    I hope someone can try asap. I have a butterfly I raised from egg and it came out of its chrysilis day before yesterday. Yesterday was heavy heavy rains but today is cold. It’s 51 now and only supposed to be 64 today. Tomorrow even colder. And the next 7 days it’s supposed to be in the 50s. So I have him in a large cardboard box with a mesh food tent on top with some sticks inside and I’ve feed it twice so far. Only 2 times yesterday. My question is do you think I should keep it longer than a week hoping for better weather or release it today? You kinda get attached to these little guys. I also have 1 that’s only 2nd instar and that one I am worried about too. What would someone suggest I do with him? I live in Tulsa Oklahoma. Thank you

    • Sonya
      | Reply

      Hi there!
      First, check this out https://monarchbutterflygarden.net/releasing-butterflies-safely-monarch-migration/
      You can even ask him a question, right on the website there’s a message option. Tony responded within a day I think to mine.

      Also, read my story below.. Very similar to yours. I totally got attached to mine! He sat at my house for about 5 days. I released (I am in MN, so way colder here!) on a day when it was some weather anomaly – 70F! That was last Wednesday. 2 hours later, a downpour came, just like a wall of rain. I have been hoping he made it. I must admit, I have been quite sad about the entire experience – you try so hard and then release and then the weather turns! I totally got attached to him, even though people say it’s just an insect.

      In your case, if the weather turns, I would release.. I am no expert, just a newly found butterfly lover. I think 50’s is not ideal, but you’re in OK, so way better chance than North..

      • Vaughn
        | Reply

        Thank you for your reply. I checked that link out and has some great info. I still have him inside. I guess my thing is either I release him and hope he makes it to where he’s going saftley or I keep him where I know he’s safe and fed. In a way I feel bad because yes he deserves to be out flying freely but at the same time it seems with the freezing temps we are supposed to get in a few days he may not make it far enough in time to escape that cold. I don’t know maybe I’m overthinking it but that’s just how I am when it comes to any critter weather it be a dog or insect. I’ve been debating on just keeping this guy as a pet and let him live out his life where he will be able to eat and be warm. (Would probably live longer that way) and that’s what I keep telling myself. I also have a cat thats only in the 2nd instar so he’s got a while to go and won’t be til November when he’s a butterfly. I read your post and that is terrible that the weather turned so quickly. Hopefully he/she made it south.

        • Sonya
          | Reply

          Hi Vaughn,

          I hope you saw my other response. Tried sending it right after the first one.

          Yes, I totally get it how you want the best for them and it’s a dilemma to release or not. I was fighting it in my head for days. I decided to release based upon what was suggested to me by experts and also to give him a chance to do what he’s supposed to do in the wild. Nonetheless, I am like you, doesn’t matter how small a critter, I love them all and feel for them! After releasing I have been torturing myself thinking what happened. I hope he made it. People say they are sturdier than we think, so I tell myself that.

          In your case, the weather actually doesn’t seem too bad. It’s almost freezing here in MN already! 60’s are just fine. Maybe if you let him go within the next couple of hours, he’d make it far enough before the rain comes tomorrow. I think they usually advise to release when you have a window of opportunity.. Just don’t wait too long as they need a good 4 hours before sunset to get adjusted to the new environment. Or you can keep him till the rain passes, if you provide enough food for your little butterfly. Mine did pretty well over 5 days eating bananas and sugary water. It seems like next Tuesday the weather will be very nice for you, similar to today. Again, you’re so much further South, so he still has a pretty good chance if you let him go.

          I wish someone else weighed in on this too. It’s a hard decision. Good luck, and let us know what happened!

          • Vaughn
            |

            Yes I saw the other comment as well. I probably should have let him go today but I think I’m going to keep him til next week after this freeze. 2 days before he came out of his chrysilis I watched hundreds and hundreds of monarchs flying south over my house. I kept thinking to myself “hurry up buddy you need to be out here with all your friends” I don’t want him to be alone lol. Long journey to fly alone. He seems pretty happy I guess. I’ve been keeping him in a pretty good sized box I made up for him with some honey water in a small dish with one of those plastic sponges inside it. He really doesn’t eat without me feeding him but I’ve been feeding him twice a day. Around noon then again around 8 pm. He feeds for about 10 or 15 min both times. We have a sun porch in the back. It has a sliding glass door into the room and a screen door outside. All 3 sides are glass. Nothing but a tv out there and all the windows have drapes so I I think to.orrow I’m going to put him out there and at least let him fly around in that room for a while so he’s not just in that box all the time. He can hang out on the drapes. We have 5 cats so at night we put him in our closet where it’s dark and cool so the cats can’t get him (very curious) lol. He seems to settle down alot while in the closet. I put a soft dish towel on the bottom on the box just in case he falls it won’t be a hard landing. I got started really late as this was my first time doing anything like this and knew nothing until about a month ago. It all starred while sitting outside watching these 2 beautiful catapillars probably 5th instar get attacked and eaten by a huge red wasp. After that I searched and brought in any egg and cat I could find.

        • Sonya
          | Reply

          Hi there! How are things with your butterflies?
          It looks like the weather has changed for you there in Tulsa.. Did you decide to release? I read an interesting article the other day that the migration is currently flying over Oklahoma, like you said you saw lots and lots of them over your house. Check it out
          https://journeynorth.org/monarchs/news/fall-2018/101118-wave-after-wave

          As for feeding, I tried feeding all the time, like 5 times a day. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not, but I offered anyway. Yes, watch out for those cats! My cat was in the garage at the time of the butterfly camping out here, but kept watching it very intensely each time!

          Keep everyone posted!

          • Vaughn
            |

            Hello, yes I’ve decided to keep him. My wife named him cooper lol. I weighed the pros and cons of weather to release or keep him and decided to keep him. Yes We have had a couple nice days to release him but I’ve also thought about longer term. Will he make it to where he’s going? End up just hanging around my area and cold move in? Not find much to eat? Preditor? I just went over all those things and decided he would probably have a better chance of living out his life inside. Yea nature should probably take it’s course and I wouldn’t keep a bunch of them I just figured 1 would be ok. He stays in a box with mesh top that’s about 3 ft high by 3ft wide with some sticks and things in there. When I get off work I take the box out to our back room and let him kinda fly around in there for a bit then feed him. I was feeding 3 times a day but he wasn’t eating much so decided to just feed him once a day by hand. There is honey water in the box so he can eat if he wants but he hasn’t eaten any and just waits til I get him out. I keep him in a closet in our room at night because it’s quite bit cooler in there and dark so when I get him out to eat he doesn’t fly right off. If it wasn’t so late in the season I wouldn’t even think twice about releasing him. He’s warm and gets fed and has a bit of flying time in that room so that’s about as good as I can do for him right now.

          • Sonya
            |

            I do think it’s not so late in the season as you believe, especially if they were recently flying over your house. Looks like high 60’s in your area for a while coming up. Just my opinion, would be interested to see what others think, but this one might not be a popular thread anymore. I wonder what other forums/groups would advise you. Good luck!

          • Billy
            |

            Hey there, Vaughn and Sonya.

            I just checked your weather forecast, Vaughn, and it looks like it will be in the 60s up to 70 as highs for the next 10 days. I would release him at your first safe chance, so he can join his kind for the trip to Mexico. Monarchs migrate based on food supplies, temperatures, habitat availability and likely a host of other criteria we don’t fully understand yet. If you release him in spring in OK, some of the things he needs to survive/thrive/continue may not be available yet (think food supplies and mates, and if he were to mate, his offspring would not have a father/grandfather/great grandfather who made the trip to Mexico).

            I vote for you to let him go so he has a chance to live out his life as a member of his culture.

            Thank you all for caring so much for these little guys.

            Take good care

      • Debra Elmer
        | Reply

        Sonya, I also live in MN and have three in chrysalis now and due to emerge in a few days. I am very nervous about letting them go, but feel I am giving them a chance. Hard to not want to keep them! This is the latest I have found eggs. I hope the weather is good this weekend.

        • Sonya
          | Reply

          Hi Debra,
          Today is sure a nice day for releasing! Yes, hopefully the weather will stay. I don’t know anyone who chose to keep them in captivity, but heard they live 2-6 weeks inside. I also felt I gave him a chance by letting him fly away, but that was about 2 weeks ago now. You should also check out this site, if you haven’t yet: he lives in MN as well and publishes good info – https://monarchbutterflygarden.net/

    • Sonya
      | Reply

      Hey, one more comment here. I quickly looked at your forecast, just on Google. It looks like this afternoon it will go into 60’s. That is fine for them to fly in. Then 4 days of rain for you in Tulsa.. I think I read they need about 4 hours before rain to kind of figure it out, especially if taking first flight. So if you wanted to, maybe you could release this early afternoon, and give him plenty of time before dark (I think again at least 4 hours before sunset) to get adjusted. The article I sent you had good info on that. And PLEASE check the radar so you know if some surprise storm comes! I kept checking all day and then boom, totally unexpected happened. If you’re comfortable taking care of him for 5 days till rain passes, you can wait, but you do have a window to release this early afternoon, it seems. Depends how comfortable you are to take care of him for almost a week. I fed mine all the time. He ate at least once a day but sometimes 3-4 times a day. Especially loved the sugar/water solution and bananas. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to chat further! Good luck and keep us posted on what happens!

  2. Billy
    | Reply

    Hey there, Sonya.

    Let him go tomorrow. He will make his way south over the next few days, where it will likely be warmer than MN.

    We live in WI, and will be releasing 2 tomorrow, with 2 more waiting in chrysalis.

    Thanks for raising monarchs.

    Take good care

    • Sonya
      | Reply

      Thank you so much for your response! I really appreciate it! The only thing, I didn’t raise this one. I found him on the side of the road not moving. Thought he was dead. He climbed onto my finger, I tried to release that same day (past Saturday) and he just sat in the same spot till it got dark. Maybe it was too cold for him? Brought him inside to give a chance.. Has been flying around the house some, mostly sitting though. I gave different fruit; sugar/water; Gatorade.. I just don’t know if he will even fly. We hardly have any flowers left in my area (Twin Cities), so I am worried he won’t find anything to eat and just sit like last time. I hope for the best.. Kind of got attached to him over the past few days! Anyone ever had a pet butterfly lol?

    • Sonya
      | Reply

      Hi there,

      Just wanted to send an update. Released my butterfly today at around 3 p.m. Here in MN it was an unusually warm day in 70s. However, 2 hours later, the weather changed completely with a downpour rain and very strong Northern winds. Temp dropping to 30s overnight. When we released him, he flew up in the tree right away and then went down. It was behind me, but my daughter said she saw him drop. We looked high and low all over, no sign of him. I spent 5 days with this little guy and kind of got attached to him. Wonder if he even has a chance given the weather is super nasty now. Maybe I should have kept him as a pet, at least it was safe. Does anyone know if they even have a chance at surviving in climates like this to make their way to Mexico in October (released in MN in my case)?

      • Billy
        | Reply

        Hey there, Sonya.

        Monarchs overwinter down in Mexico, in a place where the average temps are just above freezing. They can certainly survive at temps below freezing, but they burn some of their stored fat, which your little guy likely has plenty of.

        He is probably hunkered down somewhere waiting for the temps to rise back into the 50s. We believe butterflies are a lot stronger than they appear.

        Take good care, Sonya.

        Billy

        • Sonya
          | Reply

          Thank you, Billy, for your kind words. I will hope for the best. Never knew I liked butterflies so much! I wonder how you can identify if a butterfly is going to be a good flyer or not, if it makes sense.. I guess when at home, ours kept going up and dropping down. So when we thought he went down outside, we desperately tried to find him to bring inside again. Maybe it was just the house, given he was bumping into things. We’ll hope for the best and try to take care of more butterflies!

      • Billy
        | Reply

        And if the movie Flight of the Butterflies (2012) is ever shown in your area, you and your daughter should go see it. It’s a fantastic monarch migration story based on actual people/events.

        It’s very kid friendly.

        You could also watch it online.

        Take good care,

        Billy

  3. Sonya
    | Reply

    Does anyone know if it’s too late to release a butterfly now (I am in MN)? The next 2 days are supposed to be 60’s and even might reach 70, but then it drops to 50 again. I want to do the best thing for this little guy! He’s been indoors for 2 days now. I give fruit and sugar water. Thank you very much!!!!!

    • Billy
      | Reply

      Hey there, Sonya.

      Let him go tomorrow. He will likely make his way south over the next few days, and could be 100 miles away by the 3rd day. It will likely be warmer the further south he gets.

      We live in WI, and will be letting 2 go tomorrow, with 2 more waiting in chrysalis.

      Life goes on. Thanks for raising monarchs.

      Take good care

  4. TB
    | Reply

    My sister has also seen Monarchs lined up like celebrants at the bar during Happy Hour, crowded onto overripe bananas she had tossed onto her compost heap–quite a sight to see!

  5. kjm
    | Reply

    We have 8 monarch chrysalises, and about 15 caterpillars In a cage in the garage feasting on milkweed. Really cold in South FL right now so thanks for the tip!!!

  6. Lillian Gorman
    | Reply

    My butterfly emerged yesterday. The weather is in the 60’s during the day and 40’s at night. Can it migrate to southern ca. Or will it winter here. In the bay area. Alameda.

  7. Rosemary Utesch
    | Reply

    I have a question! It is January 11 2017 in Riverside California. Our Milkweed plants had 40 caterpillars and now I do not see them. Did they die or do they go somewhere? I do not see a Chrystalis anywhere. Your assistance is greatly appreciated…we are new to this!

  8. Karen Milliorn
    | Reply

    My sister has also seen Monarchs lined up like celebrants at the bar during Happy Hour, crowded onto overripe bananas she had tossed onto her compost heap–quite a sight to see!

  9. Maria
    | Reply

    I’m near Conroe and have about 20 Gulf Fritillaries in chrysalis, some of which have been hanging around for more than a month.
    They’re in a room where the temp stays about 60 degrees. Is it possible they WON’T emerge at all? Or not until the Spring?
    Any words of wisdom about how to care for them?

  10. Dolly LaLa
    | Reply

    How long should butterflies live in “captivity”?
    It’s too cold to release them but the five that have hatched are living only 1 – 2 weeks. I have fresh oranges and Gatorade for them to sip. Is this short life span normal? I have 12 chrysalis left and want to do my best for them.

  11. Monica
    | Reply

    Thank you for this information. I live in Central Florida and have had quite a few Milkweed plants bloom, and therefore, more catapillars have hatched and started to eat the leaves. Unfortunately, it is estimated to freeze here in a few days. Do you have any suggestions as to what I should do with the catapillars? Should I bring them in and cut the milkweed plants they are eating? If so, how do I make a cage for them? I know that they will soon leave the plants to make a cocoon, but would they survive in the cacoon in freezing weather?

  12. phyllis mann
    | Reply

    where can I buy milkweed for south calif climate

    • kjm
      | Reply

      home depot should have some

  13. Janet
    | Reply

    I’m near Conroe and have about 20 Gulf Fritillaries in chrysalis, some of which have been hanging around for more than a month.
    They’re in a room where the temp stays about 60 degrees. Is it possible they WON’T emerge at all? Or not until the Spring?
    Any words of wisdom about how to care for them?

  14. Gerber Daisy
    | Reply

    Sincere Thanks for this post. This is my first attempt at saving a caterpillar [actually 4] and this AM, the first monarch spread its wings. I was back in “mom” mode, nurturing, wondering to put in makeshift habitat. Monica, your post came at the PERFECT time, as tomorrow AM, I will have 3 more butterflies as tonight, the chystallis is dark – I am stoked. Off to the store in the AM to get some web sponges. Sincere thanks from Bryan/College Station!!!

    • Monika Maeckle
      | Reply

      Congratulations! They are truly amazing and resilient creatures and inspire us all. Oh, and you’re not so bad yourself. Keep us posted and good luck! MM

      • Muriel Kingsbury
        | Reply

        Monika, I read as much as I can but am concerned my new monarchs aren’t doing well. Three have emerged and wouldn’t eat or fly in my large cage. Outside one flew well but two stayed on a budelia all nite. It was 78degrees outside when I released them I have 5 more chrysalides and 5 more cats. I am getting worried as fear it will soon be too cold. I am in Sebastopol CA. Any advice?

        • Monika Maeckle
          | Reply

          Not sure what to tell you. It’s always tough late in the season and there’s no way to know what the problem is without seeing them are somehow inspecting them. Sorry I can’t be more helpful. Good luck.

  15. Carol Pasternak
    | Reply

    Great article, Monika.

  16. Desha Melton
    | Reply

    Thank you so much for this very informative and helpful article. I currently have a Fritillary chrysalis in a cage inside the house. I’m keeping it inside were it’s continuously over 67 degrees, hoping it will emerge before the next cold front. On warm days I put it back outside to soak up the warmth. Now I won’t have to be as concerned if it doesnt’t emerge before the next cold front. Yesterday I saw a Monarch, Queen, and G. Fritillary oviposit eggs and was contemplating raising them but was fearful about weather conditions when they emerge. Because of your article I can make a more informed decision. Did Ms. Hodson mention the length of time she has fed butterflies by this method? I really appreciate all that you do and your wonderful articles.

  17. Joanna Roos
    | Reply

    Oh what a lovely story!!!
    Beautiful photographs.
    Thank you so much for sharing this with me.
    I’m sharing yours with friends.

    • The entomologist
      | Reply

      I agree it is lovely. I am in fact an entomologist( insect expert). The reason with them staying late could be due to tempature. If the temp suddenly drops, it could be bad for them.

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