Going to Bed for the Winter

Or, How Does a Red-spotted Purple

Spend the Winter?

Understanding the life cycle and natural history of resident butterflies in our wildlife gardens plays a more important role than you may think when it comes to decisions regarding maintenance and other garden tasks.

Many of the moths and butterflies we’ve attracted to our gardens spend the winter in the garden as an egg, a partially grown caterpillar, or a chrysalis. Many spiders and preying mantises lay egg masses that over winter too; the adults die as late fall arrives.

Red-spotted Purples prefer fruit to flower nectar, so I hang a dish of gooey fruit in the garden (spring through fall)

Red-spotted Purples are quite common in our garden from mid-June through late September. We have lots of Black Cherry trees (Prunus serotina) and have also planted Beach Plum bushes (Prunus maritima). Both are used as caterpillar host plants by this stunning butterfly.

On September 23, 2012, I watched one of the very last Red-spotted Purples in the garden. It danced around the Beach Plums and I thought it must be laying eggs. I looked closely at leaf after leaf, zeroing in on the very tip where Red-spotted Purples carefully lay their jewel-like egg, but could find none.

Going to Bed for the Winter

As I scrutinized the leaves, though, I suddenly spotted a treasure – a teeny-tiny caterpillar (@ 1/4 inch long) perched out near the end of a twisty, dead-looking bit at the end of a leaf. I stepped back from the Beach Plum, looked at the bush as a whole, and noticed other similar leaves with dead-looking extensions. Each one had a teeny-tiny Red-spotted Purple caterpillar on it, four all told.

I ran for the camera, knowing just what I’d found: Red-spotted Purple caterpillars preparing their winter hibernaculum, the place where they will safely winter as a partially grown caterpillar.

 

Every day thereafter I spent time searching for the caterpillars, hoping they’d survive. It was the peak of autumn migration and our little woodlot attracted flock after flock of hungry migrant songbirds. Each day I feared that my caterpillars would be gone, discovered and feasted upon by hungry birds.

 

Red-spotted Purple caterpillar creating its hibernaculum

 

Hibernaculum silked to the branch so in winter it will be one of the only remaining leaves on this Beach Plum bush

Completed HIBERNACULUM

Five days later, September 28, I found only two of the four caterpillars. Each of them had completed their hibernaculum and was hiding down inside. They’re still there, hopefully safe for the winter.

Come winter, Black Cherries and Beach Plums lose their leaves. Red-spotted Purple caterpillars silk the hibernaculum leaf closed and to the branch.  When all the leaves fall these hibernaculums will be the only remaining leaves on the tree (or shrub) through winter, making hibernaculums a bit easier to spot.

Over the winter these tiny caterpillars could still succumb to a hungry bird inspecting every inch of every branch for a morsel. Overwintering caterpillars are just such a morsel. Heavy snowfall could snap off the twig supporting the hibernaculum. An ice storm coupled with strong winds could do the same.

In the Spring

If all goes well, by spring the overwintering, partially-grown caterpillar will emerge from the safety of its hibernaculum to feed as Beach Plums and Black Cherries leaf out.

Once full grown, the caterpillar will go into the next life stage, an amazingly camouflaged chrysalis (see below).  About 12 to 14 days later the first generation of flying adult Red-spotted Purples will emerge from the chrysalis in mid-June in southern New Jersey. I can hardly wait.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other Parts of the Red-spotted Purple’s

Life Cycle

Red-spotted Purple’s jewel-like egg laid at the very tip of the leaf

Camouflaged Red-spotted Purple chrysalis

I’ll be Looking Closely for More Hibernaculums This Winter

With the hibernaculum search image now intact, I’ll be looking more closely at each and every leaf bit still attached to Beach Plums and Black Cherries. Too, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that the tiny caterpillars will survive the winter and its many hazzards: hungry birds, heavy snow, ice storms and strong wind, as well as fussy, too-tidy gardeners.

Pat Sutton, of Cape May NJ, is an author and naturalist who has taught gardening for wildlife workshops and tours, for over 30 years, and is available to speak to your group or organization.

© 2012, Pat Sutton. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. says

    What amazing patience you have! To watch day after day, capturing each stage of this process with your wonderful photos. Having been there the day you discovered these caterpillars in your beautiful wildlife garden, I’m so thrilled to see they’ve safely made their winter homes and avoided the hungry flock of birds passing through. The fact that you found these caterpillars in the first place is a testament to your skill because they were TEENY!
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Ecosystem Gardening Essentials

    • says

      Hi Carole, teeny tiney and itsy bitst they were / are. Tickled I got to show them to you in person. Such a treasure in the Wildlife Garden to find and follow. To more discoveries shared! Thanks for making it possible through this great website.

  2. Carole says

    Fascinating! Finally spied a red-spotted in my yard this week. I have black willow and Cherokee plum so they will be under inspection.

  3. says

    Wonderful and educational blog post/article Pat. Love reading it and learning as I further my new beginnings into the beauty and wonderment of butterflies. Thank you.

  4. says

    Pat, I appreciate the beautiful photographs and new information. We see red-spotted purples in the backyard – though never as many at one time as in your photograph. However, I did not know how they overwintered. I, too, will be looking for hibernaculums this winter. Thanks for sharing.
    Betty Hall recently posted..October gardenscape

  5. says

    FABULOUS essay Pat!! If I were to put out a plate of fruit as you do . . . the birds would be attacking all day long. I love the part about the little caterpillar and seeing it make its winter bed. I too hope it and many others survive the songbirds . . . but then I love the songbirds too. What are we to do . . . remain aloof I suppose . . . hard not to become attached to these precious critters. Wonderful images too Pat.
    Carol Duke recently posted..Monarch Butterflies Wild About The Gardens

    • says

      Carole, thank you so much! Regarding the dish of fruit, you might be surprised. Our yard is full of birds and the fruit dish does not play a role in their day . . . except for the hummingbirds that fly near the dish to feast on fruit flies. Love having a wealth of caterpillars in our yard due to the wealth of native trees, shrubs, vines, grasses, and perennials . . . and love knowing that songbirds are finding plenty to feast on, with enough escaping detection to result in a garden full of butterflies by day and moths by night.
      Pat Sutton recently posted..Hibernaculum: Winter Home to Red-spotted Purple

  6. Dee says

    Beautiful photos! This article is a solid educational experience, you have captured amazing stages of life of the cat that few get to see! Great job Pat!!!
    I just asked our park management for permission to plant a Black cherry tree. I’m anxiously waiting for their response, hoping they will say yes.

    • says

      Dee, I hope your park management agrees with you and OKs the planting of a Black Cherry tree. They’re tops on my list and benefit so many birds, and so many butterflies, moths and other pollinators. Thank you for your kind praise!
      Pat Sutton recently posted..Invasives – Be Gone !

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Understanding the life cycle and natural history of resident butterflies in our wildlife garden plays a more important role than you may think when it comes to decisions regarding maintenance and other garden tasks.   Many of the moths and butterflies we’ve attracted to our gardens spend the winter in the garden as an egg, a partially grown caterpillar, or a chrysalis. Many spiders and preying mantises lay egg masses that over winter too; the adults die as late fall arrives.  [...]

  2. [...] butterflies overwinter as eggs, as partially grown caterpillars in hibernaculums (like the Red-spotted Purples I wrote about in a previous column), as caterpillars safely down in the leaf litter under their [...]

  3. [...] The seed eaters, the most common winter birds, may not be strict vegetarians. They know how to locate some animal protein here and there and welcome these nutritional supplements when given a chance. It takes skill, sharp eyes, and perseverance because this kind of food is scarce and well hidden through the colder months. The winter landscape is devoid of flying insects or succulent caterpillars chomping on leaves. Whatever insect life there is, it is snuggled up under bark or soil. Or, if it is in plain view, it is hidden by color and shape, blending with the surroundings and holding perfectly still in the shape of eggs or cocoons. [...]

  4. [...] 110. Going to Bed for the Winter “Many of the moths and butterflies we’ve attracted to our gardens spend the winter in the garden as an egg, a partially grown caterpillar, or a chrysalis. Many spiders and preying mantises lay egg masses that over winter too; the adults die as late fall arrives.” by Pat Sutton [...]

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