Here’s what to do with late season butterflies: Let them be

The question of what to do with late season butterflies can be problematic. Should we bring them inside or let Nature take her course?

The question arises frequently in late fall, when temperatures vacillate wildly. San Antonio saw temperatures span 50 degrees over the last week, from 82 last Wednesday to 32 a week later. It’s no wonder insects might be confused–time to migrate or just reproduce here?

The extremes have provoked myriad requests for advice, as seen in the screenshots that accompany this post. One reader sought advice on what to do with 11 monarch and Queen caterpillars found in her Hill Country garden.

“Are there other steps I can take to give these ‘late bloomers’ their best chance?” asked Jackie Garrow, near Marble Falls, on November 2.

Just days later, another reader reached out via Facebook to ask if the Texas Butterfly Ranch accepts overnight shipments of butterflies stranded up north. The answer is no. But Chloe Urban of Newport, New Hampshire, just wanted to give a late hatching monarch “a chance.”

For those who love butterflies and enjoy raising them at home, late season butterflies are a mixed bag. On the one hand, 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. With our climate getting warmer, this is likely to happen more often.

The tough part comes when the butterflies hatch and it’s freezing outside. Generally, butterflies won’t fly when temperatures are less than 60 degrees.

So what’s a butterfly lover to do?

“Do like the great Beatles song suggests: Let it be,” said Anurag Agrawal, author of Milkweed and Monarchs and an award winning chemical ecologist and professor at Cornell University. Scientists seem pretty much in agreement on this, and I must say my own thinking has evolved from this post I wrote in 2013 to agree with them.

*The late caterpillars are the ‘living dead,”’ said Agrawal. “They don’t have a chance and there is no sense in us tinkering with nature.” It’s part of the natural cycle, he explained, and they’ll become food for others or fertilize the ground.

Migration expert Andy Davis agreed. “I can give you my answer to these types of questions, but your readers will not like it one bit: leave them alone,” he said.

Davis, a research scientist in the University of Georgia Odum School of Ecology and Editor-in-Chief of Animal Migration who specializes in conservation physiology, said he always sides with natural selection. “Natural selection is the tool that mother nature uses to allow populations of animals, plants or insects to adapt to changing environments. But, it only works if we let it.”

What about transporting a late season butterfly via overnight mail to a more friendly climate so it can join the migration?

Both scientists see such action as problematic. “Shipping them takes an enormous amount of fuel and effort,” said Agrawal. “Instead we should be spending our time and money toward educating, naturalizing, and conserving,”

“I know that the people asking these questions really want to help, but really, this should be a teaching moment for them (about the way nature really works),” said Davis. A 2016 post he wrote on his MonarchScience blog about what to do with straggler monarchs delved into this topic directly.

“Stragglers are stragglers for a reason,” said Davis. “If we allow them to survive in the population, then their ‘straggler’ genes will be passed on. This weakens the entire population (genetically). Similarly, should we allow monarch eggs that were laid way too late to become adults to survive? Mother nature would have removed these.”

The Darwinian logic makes sense. That said, if you just can’t help yourself, keep in mind that having live butterflies inside your home carries responsibility. Ideally, you would have them in a place that mimics natural light cycles–no harsh fluorescent lights. Keeping them safe in a pop-up cage so they don’t fly under the couch or get stepped on is another concern. And, you’ll need to feed them after the first 24 hours or so.

Commercial butterfly breeder Connie Hodson of Flutterby Gardens in Florida suggests using sponges–scrubbers, actually–soaked in grape- or punch-flavored Gatorade laid out in shallow dishes inside a pop-up butterfly cage.

Hodsdon has raised tens of thousands of butterflies and has moody weather in Tampa Bay similar to ours in South Texas.  Since butterflies taste with their feet, she pointed out, 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.

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

When the weather changes, you can release them to wind.

TOP PHOTO: Monarch butterfly straggler sips on orange, awaiting a warm day for release. Photo by Monika Maeckle

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11 Responses

  1. Traci Starkweather
    | Reply

    Hi. I was just told about this website. I, too, have a butterfly garden in Central Florida. We love our Monarchs! A friend suggested I come here and find the search bar. After I do that she suggested I enter “the difference between Queen and Monarch.” I cant find a search bar anywhere! Would you please help me find this information?

    Also, I just finished reading the article about what to do when temperatures dip below 60 degrees. I found it to be provoking. We brought 15 caterpillars in on January 1st. We have 2 pop-up homes for them and big milkweed plants inside. If we hadn’t brought them in and released them—we wouldn’t have had any this year at all! I am not trying to argue. I’m trying to learn. So, I ask you this, if the Monarchs are endangered, why wouldnt we want every single one to have the best chance possible? I look forward to learning more here. Thank you for your patience and answers.

    Traci Starkweather

  2. Kris
    | Reply

    My advice? Follow peace and common sense. If you live in a northern state, the very late-season butterflies will probably starve or freeze if not given an aviary to live. But occasionally a cold storm will blow through the southern states and then the weather warms up again for a bit. There will be those who let nature take its course – and those who will bring caterpillars inside. It’s all good. We don’t all have to make the same choice.

    Scientifically speaking, I should think that the butterflies who made it to sanctuary ahead of the storm are not stronger than those who enclosed later, just have more fortunate timing.

  3. Bev
    | Reply

    At the beach in NJ this year a storm rolled in, I’m assuming during a migration period/path. In the morning there were many Monarchs wet and covered with sand trying to survive. To no avail. I picked up about 1 dozen in about 50 ft. of beach. I’m gping to cover them in 2 part resin and attach to a piece of driftwood so I can enjoy them year round. Sad that climate changes have altered the life cycle of many
    migratory insects and animals.

  4. Craig Oveson
    | Reply

    So Andy Davis says ““Natural selection is the tool that mother nature uses to allow populations of animals, plants or insects to adapt to changing environments. But, it only works if we let it.” I assume Andy either stays indoors where he has built a fire to keep warm, turns on his heater, or puts on warmer close when he goes outside.

    In the fall some monarchs head south without breeding. Do they do that because they know it’s going to get cold outside ? We know when it gets cold outside monarchs and birds, etc. congregate in warm places until the temperature rises again or if they can’t find a warmer place they die don’t they ? Does this mean they are “thinking” or is this instinctive ?

    If it unexpectedly gets cold outside, and Andy (defined by scientists like Andy as an animal) didn’t have a place to get warm indoors or warm clothes to put on if he had to stay outside and there wasn’t anyone around to ask him indoors or give him warm clothes he would die too; right ? If someone found Andy freezing outside shouldn’t we save his life if possible or should we apply “Darwinian logic” to Andy too and let him freeze because he is too stupid to save himself and we don’t need any more stupid people in the world.

    Humans have the ability to save both species. Shouldn’t we let “Mother Nature” decide ?

    Here’s something for Andy and his “scientist” friends to ponder about “Darwinian logic”

  5. Micky Moore
    | Reply

    It’s so hard to let them be but I officially stoped raising them for 2019 with the eggs, caterpillars and chrysalids on hand 11/1/19. I cut back milkweed planning to end 11/15 +/- a day or so so there’should no more milkweed to temp the butterflies or me!

  6. Craig Oveson
    | Reply

    “So what’s a butterfly lover to do?” You could have stopped there Monika

  7. Howard Nemerov
    | Reply

    Much as I love Monarchs and seek to prepare a table for them spring and fall, I am reminded of numerous college classes and horticultural writings that discuss genetics biology, and the big picture. If these Monarchs want to breed in winter-like conditions, perhaps their genetics are not the best going forward? As a long-time gardener and now Master Gardener, I see life AND death occurring daily in the garden. What, you think those Lady Beetles are cute as they mass murder aphids?

  8. Michael R Martin
    | Reply

    Doing what we can to help make a difference, but more so, allowing Mother Nature to do what she does best. MRM

  9. Sandy Pie’
    | Reply

    I lucked out the last two years here in Milwaukee, WI! I had 1 late Monarch last year and two this year eclose right before cold fronts that would have been the end of them. Fortunately our Museum has a wonderful Butterfly Aviary and not only do they gladly take them, I was able to teach children about them when I released them inside. Both years they had a male Monarch already there. So happy they have a purpose educating the visitors!

  10. Cathy
    | Reply

    I have 40 caterpillars (Monarch) with this extreme drop in temps, here in Montgomery, Alabama.
    I decided to dig up my few plants and bring then inside until they can hopefully have a chance when it warms up, and just pray there are enough milk weed leaves to sustain them until they cocoon. Can’t watch something just die because of a freak cold front.

    I know the smaller ones will not survive, but many large enough to do their thing. Hoping for the best.
    Praying for the best outcome, long live our Monarchs.

  11. Barbara Tomasov
    | Reply

    Thank you for this info. I live in Pennsylvania near Gettysburg. I had 2 chrysalis still hanging the end of October. One finally opened and flew away. The other is still hanging and presumed not viable. The problem I had is our flowers are mostly gone and there isn’t anything for them to eat even if they do open up. I just left them alone. Nature will take care of it

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