Provide Winter Habitat for Butterflies and Moths

If you are like me, winter is not typically when you think about providing habitat for butterflies and moths. In fact, until I started researching and learning about pollinators, I never even thought about how butterflies and moths survive the winter. I knew monarchs migrated, but didn’t have a clue about our other species. I just took it for granted that all the butterflies and moths would appear again in the spring and summer.

A tiger swallowtail chrysalis attached to a stem for the winter. Most of Kentucky’s butterflies and moths survive the winter as a pupae in a chrysalis or cocoon. Photo credit: Dean Morley

A few butterfly species that can be found in Kentucky and surrounding states migrate south for the winter. Monarchs have the longest migration and are the ones we know the most about; we don’t know as much about their migration routes and destinations of the other migrating species. Species that migrate include the:

  • Monarch (Danaus plexippus)
  • Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae),
  • Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui),
  • American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis),
  • Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae),
  • Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta),
  • Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia),
  • Clouded Skipper (Lerema accius),
  • Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus),
  • Sachem (Atalopedes campestris), and
  • Ocola Skipper (Panoquina ocola).

Obviously if they are migrating, then we don’t have to worry about providing winter habitat for those species because they aren’t here during the winter.

At least one of our butterfly species, the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) actually hibernates as an adult butterfly in tree cavities or crevices. A few other species, such as the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella) – aka the wooly worm caterpillar –  hibernate as caterpillars. However, migrating and hibernating are relatively rare overwintering strategies for butterflies and moths in this region.

Most of our butterfly and moth species overwinter as a pupae. In butterflies, the pupae is the chrysalis; in moths the pupae is a cocoon. The caterpillar spends the summer and early fall eating and storing as much energy as possible. In late fall, the caterpillar crawls a few feet away its host plants (the plants it has been eating). If it is a butterfly caterpillar, it will crawl up another plant and form a chrysalis. It’ll overwinter in the chrysalis before completing metamorphosis and emerging as a butterfly in the spring. If it is a moth caterpillar, then it may crawl up another plant and spin a silk cocoon, it may crawl into the leaf litter and spin its cocoon, or it may borrow into the soft dirt and spin its cocoon. Like the butterfly caterpillar, the moth caterpillar will overwinter as a pupae within its cocoon before completing metamorphosis in the spring.

Butterfly and pollinator gardens have become increasingly popular in recent years. Most gardening books will tell you to cut back dead plant material and rake up leaves and other debris in the fall. Yet, in a butterfly or pollinator garden these activities can create problems for the very animals the garden was designed to attract. Cutting back dead plant material could mean cutting back plants with chrysalises and cocoons. Raking up and disposing of fallen leaves could also result in the disposal of moth cocoons or hibernating caterpillars. If providing habitat for butterflies and moths is an important goal for your garden, then consider leaving the fall cleanup until the spring. This will give the butterflies and moths a chance to emerge and will provide year-round habitat for these insects.

This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology.

Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at

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