Winter Butterflies

It’s not unusual to have a few moths appear in the house over the course of the winter, presumably having woken up prematurely after having been brought in with firewood. This winter, however, is the first time I’ve ever had butterflies appearing in the house. The first one was a cabbage white that showed up in the kitchen in December. I escorted it to the bird feeder, where it was snatched up by a chickadee before long. The source turned out to be this chrysalis on one of the cabbage leaves Julia had just brought in from the garden:


I was surprised that it was fooled into thinking spring had come, after no more than a few hours of being indoors. I was much more surprised this evening when Julia went to start a fire and found this resting on the firewood we had brought in earlier today:


It wasn’t particularly warm in the house, and it’s a few months early for a tiger swallowtail to be emerging, so I don’t know how to explain this. I assume that if we let it outside it would freeze to death, and if not, it would be unlikely to survive long enough to drink from the first flowers of spring. It’s a shame, but I decided to make the most of its misfortune and try out my macro lens on it—not something I get to do when they’re fluttering from flower to flower in the spring and summer.


About Charley Eiseman

I am a freelance naturalist, endlessly fascinated by the interconnections of all the living and nonliving things around me. I am the lead author of Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates (Stackpole Books, 2010), and continue to collect photographs and information on this subject. These days I am especially drawn to galls, leaf mines, and other plant-insect interactions.
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9 Responses to Winter Butterflies

  1. ika says:

    Ever tried giving a prematurely awoken overwinterer some honeywater solution and then keeping it in the fridge (or cellar) until spring? I haven’t, but in theory it could work out.

    • I tried keeping a paper wasp alive that way once (I wanted to raise a strepsipteran that was poking out of its abdomen). It did stay alive for a couple of months, but not long enough.

      Someone reminded me last night that there is a butterfly sanctuary not far from here, where I could probably bring it… if I can figure out where it went.

  2. pat thomas says:

    beautiful images- thank you for sharing.
    hope you can find that beauty and get it to where it will do well. i love your book!

  3. I, too, was surprised when a Black Swallowtail pupating in my house emerged in mid-November. I thought it would have required both temperature and longer days, but temperature was apparently enough.

  4. Katie (Nature ID) says:

    Leps as bird food cracks me up, because they’re so nutritious. Certain skippers in my youth provided plenty of summer snacks as I laid across the lawn on my belly, picking them off by hand from the dandelion blooms, and then feeding them one-by-one to my pet cats.

    I’m cheered that you posted about winter swallowtails emerging indoors in the eastern part of N.A. When I first started working for Dr. Sonja Teraguchi in Cleveland, OH, she told me about fielding calls to the museum asking about swallowtails in the house during December. No one seemed to believe her or (later) me. We postulated that they came in on Christmas trees (one week after Thanksgiving through to New Year’s), or possibly poinsettias (I now doubt this). I shared this story with a couple other CA lep folks (Shapiro, Pratt), and they 1) wanted to know species 2) were fascinated. I also shared this story with fellow blogger Martin of Martin’s Moths in the UK ( I kept my phone notes, and the butterflies were described as large enough to fill your hands with yellow and black stripes – I assumed swallowtail but never received any specimens.

    Best wishes for you, Charlie. I enjoy your blog. Keep sharing.

  5. Jennifer says:

    Wow! This is incredible. The firewood stack is quite the source of invertebrates. I found a question mark overwintering in our pile the other day. It’s so surprising though to see a swallowtail in the winter. Hope you both are well!

  6. Pingback: Another Lep in the Living Room | BugTracks

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