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 Look out for butterflies that need your help this winter


December 2017

winter butterfly

Hard to think of now, but just a few weeks ago here in the UK we enjoyed some surprisingly warm days. Even more surprising for some was the emergence of various butterflies, suddenly appearing from nowhere to enjoy waggling their wings in the gentle heat from the distant sun.

Surprising because most people know that our beautiful butterflies only enjoy a very brief lifespan, usually in the beginning and middle of our summer. Some live for only a few days while others live for several months, although these will often show signs of ageing with faded colours and frayed wings.

But there are a few British butterflies, usually larger ones, that can live for up to a year or more. A handful of adult butterflies, such as the Brimstone, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Red Admiral, manage to hibernate through the British winter. As long as they have eaten well first, keep warm and stay dormant, they use very little energy and so can re-emerge in spring. Some can also survive the winter as eggs, caterpillars or chrysalis.

Sadly however, even these determined butterflies that manage to last through the British winter will fail to make another winter.

Even the hibernating butterflies face huge risks. During a sudden warm spell, they may emerge early from hibernation...hence we can occasionally spot them at any time of year when we get an unusually warm spell. But then they waste energy finding another suitable sheltered spot for when the weather turns cold again which can weaken them. If they get wet or damp during this time, they are unlikely to survive.

However, butterflies that find warm sheds, outhouses, hidden holes in stone walls and natural hollows in trees might make it to the following spring, especially if the winter is not too severe. Some butterflies such as the tortoiseshell can actually withstand very cold conditions if it has stocked up enough on food before hibernation. Then in early March, when the weather begins to warm up and the first flowers (especially catkins) appear, butterflies will start to emerge.

If a butterfly emerges in a warm spell in the middle of winter, a good solution is to try and safely rehouse it before it gets dark or too cold again. You need to gently catch it and carefully keep it in a small cardboard box or similar in a cool area for half an hour or so to try and calm it down. An old shoe box is ideal. Cut a narrow slot around 5 cm high and just 1 cm wide  in one side and also add some more small holes for ventilation. Once the butterfly has calmed down, place the box in a dry protected place away from direct sunshine, possibly in an outhouse or garage. The box will protect it from birds and other predators who find hibernating butterflies a tasty treat. The slot in the side is to give it an escape route when it reawakens in spring.

Another problem that faces butterflies if they emerge from hibernation too early is when they are in a garage or outhouse with windows. Butterflies on waking usually head straight for windows, and these places often have spiderwebs. This can easily trap the sleepy butterfly.

But despite all the hazards some butterflies do make it through the winter to enjoy a few more days of warmer weather in their short but beautiful lives. These can be joined by the new emerging butterflies and also a few butterflies that actually emigrate into the UK from the continent. They truly are amazing creatures.

Find out more about butterflies and how you can help these fragile creatures at


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