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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18 Responses

  1. 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!!!

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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!

  5. 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?

  6. 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.

  7. 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?

  8. phyllis mann
    | Reply

    where can I buy milkweed for south calif climate

    • kjm
      | Reply

      home depot should have some

  9. 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?

  10. 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.

  11. Carol Pasternak
    | Reply

    Great article, Monika.

  12. 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.

  13. 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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