Cover for butterflies

Mourning cloak ©Janet AllenMourning cloak overwinters as an adult

As May Garelick's children's book asks in its title, we've also wondered, "Where does the butterfly go when it rains?"

I've read that in the summer they find some large leaf to hide under, hide between some stones, or even just cling to a leaf with its wings closed.

Chances are, though, they don't have much problem finding cover in the summer. Winter, though, may be a time when our landscaping practices have created a problem for butterflies.

Cover in winter

Prairie dropseed in winter  ©Janet AllenPrairie dropseed, unshorn, ready for the winter, perhaps sheltering some insects

What is more pertinent to our habitat garden is to be sure butterflies have cover over the winter. Except for a few kinds of butterflies (such as red admirals and, of course, monarchs) that populate our area by migrating from the south, our butterflies have overwintered in one of their life stages. How else would they be here the next year? The stage is different for different butterflies. (See sidebar.)

Fortunately, many of our general earth-friendly gardening practices have also provided cover for overwintering butterflies—even before we realized we were doing so. For example, we don't "clean up" the garden in the fall, raking up all the leaves and putting them in a bag out to the curb as so many people do. (We do pile leaves into barrels we create so they can become leaf humus. These are generally leaves that we've gathered from what people have put out the curb.)

Log pile  ©Janet AllenMost of these are being saved for garden bed edging

They can be found in places such as under the loose bark of trees, in a woodpile, or beneath a rock.

If the temperature reaches 60°F, they'll re-emerge and continue their pre-winter life in whatever stage they're in. By spring they're fairly old for a butterfly, so sometimes they look pretty tattered when I see them.

A source or a sink?

Fall leaves  ©Janet AllenWe leave the leaves where they fall. Something may be spending the winter there!

Why does this matter? We've learned that often butterflies are overwintering in this leaf litter. As Carolyn Summers asks in Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East, "Are are yards becoming a source or a sink for butterflies?" In other words, are we attracting butterflies in the summer so that they'll lay eggs, then scooping up these larvae and sending them to the landfill before they become butterflies?

We're trying to be even more careful with our leaf litter, making sure we don't pile it up too much.

Another thing we watch out for is to check any logs we bring inside to burn in the fireplace (a very rare event for us in any case). There could be overwintering butterflies or pupae under that bark!

Unnecessary cover

One thing we didn't fall for are those cute little "butterfly houses." Nowhere (aside from catalogs selling these things) have I ever seen any information indicating that these are necessary, helpful, or even used. We've put our efforts into leaving some flower stalks, old logs, and the usual garden leavings, which truly are necessary for cover.