Weathering the Storm
Ever wonder where butterflies go when the weather gets bad?
By Tom Allen, Contributing Editor
Photo: Amanda G. Carpenter
Living in Florida, I've seen my fair share of severe weather, from droughts and heavy rains to wildfires and hurricanes. People often ask me where the butterflies go during these times.
The good news is that many animals, including butterflies like the tiger swallowtail (right), often sense severe weather. They detect a drop in barometric pressure and leave for safe locations before the storm hits.
Butterflies and other insects don't always have the ability or time to move to another location, though. Sometimes they must ride out the storm.
Many Hiding Places
Shelter for a butterfly may be the underside of a large leaf, behind loose bark, the side of a tree or even a pile of leaves on the ground. Butterflies, as with many insects, have hooks at the ends of their legs. This allows them to grip tightly to most surfaces, even when the wind is really blowing.
The same is true for caterpillars. They have a series of short hooks at the end of their prolegs for gripping surfaces. If you've ever tried to pick a caterpillar off a plant or stem, you know how tight they can grip.
Weather Takes a Toll
Butterflies can often survive surprisingly tough conditions, but depending on a storm's severity, weather can take a toll on the population. For instance, hurricanes and tornados can be so severe that only a few butterflies are able to withstand the storm's fury.
Before Hurricane Charley hit southwest Florida 2 years ago, there were always dozens of butterflies in my
gardens. Following the storm, I could only find two female monarchs. They were tattered, flying aimlessly around the flower beds. They survived about a week after the storm-long enough to lay their eggs on my milkweeds.
It was unfortunate to see the butterfly population wiped out like that, but I knew it wouldn't take long for the butterflies to return. Soon, all kinds of species were flitting about my yard.
During wildfires, butterflies often can't fly fast or far enough to escape. But the fires add nutrients to the soil, quickly attracting butterflies and other wildlife back to the area.
So how do butterflies survive cold temperatures and drought? Flying flowers are amazing creatures and have adapted well to these weather extremes. Butterflies simply wait out severe weather patterns in the chrysalis stage until conditions become favorable.
Marvelous Mourning Cloak
The mourning cloak is one of the most impressive examples of butterflies that wait out bad weather. These fliers, as well as others in the anglewing family, hibernate over winter.
We don't often think about butterflies becoming dormant during periods of extreme summer heat, but many do. This is called estivation, where butterflies seek out hollow trees, shady rock outcroppings or even a cool shed to wait out the hot summer months.
You may see a mourning cloak during early summer, but then it often disappears again until fall. When it emerges, it feeds for a while and then goes dormant again in winter. In spring, it reappears to mate and lay eggs. All the while, we think we are seeing two or three broods, when in fact, we are seeing only one.
As with all insects, butterflies have normal fluctuations in their populations from year to year. One year they may be scarce because of a hurricane or other natural event. Then the next year, they might be everywhere.
Even when catastrophic weather events do occur, the butterfly population isn't doomed. In time, these amazing flying flowers will rebound and once again become a common sight in our gardens.