Life Among the Butterflies

Get ready to go behind the scenes at Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory!

Butterflies in Winter

Butterflies in Winter

cecropia moth in the house with hand

Butterflies are sun-lovers, so much so that they can be considered little solar-powered beings who are dependent on the warmth to stay active and fly around.

So how on earth could be a butterfly be flying around in winter? It may seem like a strange concept but it’s not uncommon for our Naturalist to receive multiple calls through fall and winter from people who find themselves with an unexpected winged friend in their living room or basement!

How does this happen? You may remember our previous blog article on swallowtail caterpillars and how they overwinter as a chrysalis. This is a common way for butterflies and moths to “hibernate” until the warmer weather returns.

In this stage, although they are dormant (not moving or eating), they are still very much alive and in tune with their surroundings. Their development is dependent on the ambient temperature: in order to remain dormant until the appropriate season, the butterfly-inside-the-chrysalis must stay cold.

Sometimes the chrysalides are brought into our warm homes, usually inadvertently. House plants that have been put out for the summer had caterpillars living on them, even Christmas trees or other cut foliage, these are some of the vessels that can transport a chrysalis from freezing temps to balmy dwellings.

The warmer temperature signals to the butterfly inside the chrysalis that it needs to speed through its development and emerge, “thinking” that spring must be here because it's so warm! Suddenly a winged, adult butterfly is flapping around inside the house, and there’s still snow on the ground.

There are also some butterflies that overwinter as an adult by simply sleeping in the loose bark or branches of a well-sheltered tree. The Comma or Question Mark are two good examples of this type. It takes even less time for them to “wake up in the warmth” and become active.

What can you do if this happens to you? First, try to identify it as one of these species - see some examples below. You can always email photos to our Naturalist if you're unsure!


polyphemus moth and cocoon

eastern black swallowtail public domain pixabay


Species that overwinter as pupae: Swallowtail (shown right), Sulphur, Moths (Polyphemus moth above left),

  • If it’s a species that overwinters as a chrysalis, then the butterfly will probably only live a couple weeks (which is typical of an adult butterfly). You can keep it warm, feed it nectar (a sugar:water solution), and have it as an indoor guest for awhile if you wish.
eastern comma butterfly summer form

mourning cloak butterfly



Species that overwinter as adult: Comma (above left), Question Mark, tortoiseshells, Mourning Cloak (above right)

If it’s a species that overwinters as an adult, you have two options:

  • You can find a sheltered place somewhere in a forest (a fallen log, piece of bark, pile of leaves) and let the butterfly go there. It will go back into dormancy for the rest of the winter and re-awaken in the spring.
  • The butterfly can be gently slipped into an envelope and placed in the fridge or your garage – somewhere it will stay cold – and in the spring, you can release it. This a perfectly normal procedure that many entomologists perform for keeping cold-hardy insects dormant.
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Messengers from the Mangrove Forest

Messengers from the Mangrove Forest

mating rice paper butterflies 400x300

Imagine yourself in a lush, coastal mangrove swamp in Malaysia. There are stilted trees, thorny vines, and lush foliage so thick you can hardly see ten steps in front of you. In the water at your feet live endangered dugongs, and in the trees above you call proboscis monkeys, who also depend on this unique mangrove ecosystem.

Suddenly, out of the dimly lit foliage around you drifts a delicate, lacey white butterfly! In a wild and dense forest such as this, a graceful butterfly such as the Rice Paper (Idea leuconoe) seems almost other-worldly, and yet coastal mangrove forests are their native home. Perhaps this is why locals of the Malayan peninsula refer to these ethereal animals as “messenger butterflies”, thought to carry words from spirits to the land of the living.

What kind of messages could these butterflies be bringing with them? In Asia, moths & butterflies are held in high esteem as being the souls of those passed-on who have come back to protect their loved ones. In Malaysia, locals watch every spring to see if the white or yellow butterflies are sighted first: if it’s the yellow butterflies, it brings a good omen for abundant milk & butter for the upcoming year.

Since the country of Malaysia is one of the oldest rainforests in the world (next to the Amazon), it has many trees that are prized for their wood, which has led to deforestation and degradation of the unique ecosystem. Perhaps the sight of a Rice Paper butterfly can carry the message of conservation & hope for a forest that is in peril, and is the home to more than one endangered species.

The Rice Paper does carry a literal message, written in the patterning on their wings. The bold black & white coloration is a warning to would-be predators of a toxin contained in their body. Their slow, not-a-care-in-the-world flight may make it seem like they could care less about their surroundings, but in fact, their flight style is for a reason: to advertise the warning pattern and be sure the message is clear.

Since finding these black-and-white butterflies in their natural habitat is a rather rare sighting, it’s especially unique to step into a tropical Conservatory where literally hundreds fill the air. For several decades now, the Rice Paper has also been raised on butterfly farms (to avoid over-collecting of wild populations) and are then shipped as chrysalides to conservatories and display houses around the world, including ours right here in Cambridge, Ontario.

Watching these butterflies float & sail around in our own small tropical forest that is the Conservatory, their relaxed flight can't help but relay a certain message of peace and calm. The charm of a Rice Paper can also be experienced when they dip down low to frequently land on visitors who are wearing bright colours (see photo below). This has earned the Rice Paper a reputation as being one of our friendliest butterflies.

The Rice Paper is a year-round resident in our Conservatory, and one that we specially feature during December & January for our Flight of White exhibit. This time of year, we fill the air with literally hundreds of these beautiful butterflies. Come surround yourself with these peaceful “butterfly messengers” and perhaps you’ll receive a special message of your own, meant just for you.


rice paper butterfly 400x350

rice paper butterflies attracted to red shirt 400x350



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Monarch Population Update

Monarch Population Update

monarch arrival journey south

Photo from Journey North Monarch Blog - Homero Gomez, Nov 2016.


Monarchs have arrived in Mexico! Almost like clockwork, they were reported as arriving in sanctuary areas on Nov 1 & 2, just in time for the local Day of the Dead celebrations.

There have been speculations on how this year’s overwintering population will compare to the last. Every summer MonarchWatch issues a prediction, based on the numbers from the previous year, the weather patterns, and how the northward spring migration fared.

Unfortunately the predictions weren’t great for this fall’s overwintering population, and it seems that they won’t be far off the mark. A slow-start spring combined with a hot, dry summer has hit the monarchs hard. The overwintering population is expected to be similar to the numbers from 2014, which was the lowest recorded year.

monarch population chart 2016

A lot of it has to do with the low numbers of 1st generation monarchs that moved northward in the spring. If the summer population doesn’t get a strong chance to get the numbers up before the fall, then they are less likely to have a good start for the winter population. Of course the decline in breeding habitat (milkweed) doesn’t help either.

In Ontario, we are at the farthest north of their range, and each year we seem to be seeing less monarchs. With climate change affecting our seasons and growth times, it may be the monarchs won’t bother (or be able to support) coming as far north as they once used to.

Because of citizen science projects like the tagging program through MonarchWatch, we are able to have information and gather data on the monarch population. Tagging is the best way for scientists to get a good population estimate. They’ve found that there is a positive association between the number of monarchs tagged and the size of the overwintering population. (If there’s more monarchs out there to tag, then citizen scientists can tag more.

Based on the numbers coming in so far of monarchs that were tagged this fall season, it does seem that the population is starting on the low side. After an optimistic spike in the overwintering population last year, this is doubly disappointing that the monarchs will be taking a serious hit again this year.

However, it goes to remind us of the importance of tagging monarchs! If it weren’t for hundreds of people volunteering their time to tag butterflies, we wouldn’t have all this data and knowledge. Here are a few interesting facts about tagging:

  • There are estimated to be 10-40,000 untagged butterflies for every 1 monarch that is tagged.
  • It can take volunteers and paid staff 2-4 hours to find just one tagged monarch amongst all the untagged individuals in Mexico.
  • Of the 1.2 million monarchs tagged between 1998-2015, only about 14,000 were recovered, some which were reported years after the date they were tagged. This is recovery rate of less than 2%!!
  • The El Rosario sanctuary in the Michoacan area of Mexico is the largest overwintering population of monarchs. The reserve covers about 56,000 hectares and the overwintering monarchs tend to take up less than 5 hectares of this sanctuary.
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Help - it's almost winter & I found a caterpillar!

Help - it's almost winter & I found a caterpillar!

black swallowtail caterpillar

Every fall we receive calls from concerned individuals who have found a caterpillar late in the season, and are wondering what will become of it with the advent of the cold weather. Quite often the caterpillar in question is the Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), which is commonly found in vegetable gardens feeding on carrot, dill or parsley plants.

If you encounter one of these caterpillars in the fall, not to worry! You can leave the caterpillar to do it's own thing. They are more than adept at dealing with the cold.

Butterflies are tougher than we give them credit for. They can fly 1000’s of kilometres to overwintering locations, lay hundreds of eggs within a matter of days, and they can do it all within a few short weeks of their adult lives. Plus, they can freeze solid, then thaw out and become alive again. Can you??

Insects are the original experts of cryopreservation (freezing for lengthened periods of time to wake up again in the future). With the good ol’ Canadian season of winter, these cold-blooded (or rather ecothermic) animals have had to come up with a way to survive the coldest part of our year. They contain natural antifreeze chemicals in their body which allow them to partially solidify (like controlled freezing), and then defrost in the spring to continue on with their life cycle.

Because insects like butterflies experience 4 distinct stages in their life cycle, that gives them 4 ways in which they can wait out the winter. Some butterflies hibernate as a caterpillar; very few hibernate as an adult butterfly; most overwinter in the chrysalis stage. 

The Black Swallowtail is one such butterfly. See a photo below of the well-camouflaged chrysalis (pictured left) the caterpillar will form, often pupating in a horziontal position, suspended upside down from the plant stem. Not until the spring of next year will the adult adult butterfly emerge (pictured right).

So if you find a caterpillar in your garden - first, rejoice that you have habitat which obviously attracted a mother butterfly to lay eggs! Second, leave it outside - usually it's best to let nature do it's thing, and the caterpillar will find a place of its own to make a chrysalis. If desired, you can keep it in a container to wait & watch the butterfly emerge next year. But be careful to keep it in the cold! They'll emerge too early if it's in the warmth of your house, thinking it's already spring. 


Black Swallowtail Chrysalis Megan McCarty 2008 wikimedia commons

eastern black swallowtail public domain pixabay



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Creepy Crawly Arachnids

Creepy Crawly Arachnids

Halloween is the celebration of the creepy, the fanfare of the phantasma! Out come the decorations, the ghosts & the skeletons, the spider webs, the gravestones. This spooky season brings to mind animals that naturally lend themselves to “creepiness”: rats, ravens, bats, black cats (a recurring theme of black & dark colours), even spiders and scorpions.

Why do we view them as creepy? Is it because they have too many legs, the potential to do us harm (for some of them), or because they’re simply misunderstood? Regardless of the reason, insects & their close cousins, the arachnids (8-legged invertebrates), admittedly are easy to classify as creepy.

Here at the Conservatory, we regularly host a variety of some of these “creepy crawlies,” which we’ve spotlighted for the Halloween season. Meet our top 4 Creepy Crawly Arachnids and how they tie in to this spooky time of year. 


 vinegaroon whip scorpionVampire Vinegaroons: Dracula wasn’t the only one to possess massive munchers! Vinegaroons, also called tailed whip scorpions, have huge “jaws” that look like they can give a mean bite. Despite the intimidating appearance of these large mouthparts (actually called pedipalps), they are not strong enough to even puncture human skin. The pedipalps are more like an enlarged lower lip, used similar to another set of legs to grab & manipulate small prey (such as crickets) and draw them into their jaws. In fact, vinegaroons are similar to vampires in that they are only interested in the liquid insides of their prey. Vinegaroons are the original vampires of the desert.


glowing scorpionSpooky Scorpions: While many might agree that scorpions are spooky enough on their own, they have yet another trick up their exoskeleton – they glow in the dark! Under UV light, all scorpions fluoresce an unearthly purplish-blue colour. The exact purpose (if there is one) for this fluorescent capability isn’t well known, but there are some theories that include reflection of UV to avoid overheating and finding a mate in the dark of night. Move aside ghosts – scorpions have a leg up on you when it comes to ethereal glowing. 


black widow spiderScarlett the Black Widow: Out of all the creepy crawly arachnids, this may be the one whose reputation certainly precedes itself. The Black Widow has a reputation for possessing a strong venom, although it has been found that they do not necessarily inject venom with every bite. It is true that females occasionally will eat the male after mating, although how often this occurs in nature (not lab conditions) is not known. Despite her kind being extremely shy, Scarlett does command a certain amount of respect. This is one small spider than can potentially pack a mean punch!


rosie tarantula spiderTerrible Tarantula: As if spiders aren’t creepy enough, they also come in extra-large size! Tarantulas have an intimidating appearance and because of their venom, have led to people considering them to be rather terrible. Yet these spiders tend to be rather gentle giants. Rosie the Tarantula, is our Chilean Rose-hair, and is a real gentle lady. Her slow, careful gait as she walks belies her scary persona. Tarantulas in general are much more timid than people assume, and only bite if provoked. Rose-hair tarantulas are particularly of a non-terrible nature, but large spiders of this kind tend to make people react in fear.

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