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January 2009

What happens to butterflies and moths in winter

Butterflies and moths are usually associated with warm summer days and balmy nights. It is easy to forget about these delicate and beautiful creatures in the cold and frosty days of winter. Yet every spring moths and butterflies appear as if by magic onc

Moths and butterflies have a number of strategies for surviving the winter cold. Some species lay eggs in late summer or autumn which do not hatch until the following spring when food is plentiful. Many moths spend the winter as caterpillars which hibernate amongst vegetation, although some do emerge to feed during mild spells. Other species like the hawk-moths spend the winter as pupae, tucked up in warm cocoons underground where they are sheltered from the cold.

A few species hibernate as adults if they can find a warm sheltered spot. Many of us have been surprised by the sight of a Small Tortoiseshell or Red Admiral butterfly in the house or garage that has been woken from its winter slumbers. The Herald moth is another species which often hibernates, appearing during the first warm spell in spring.

Yet few people realise that some hardy moths are active as adults right through the winter months. One of these, the aptly named December moth, spends all its brief adult life in mid winter, flying through November and December. This attractive moth is found mainly in broadleaved woodland and lays its eggs on trees such as oak, birch and hawthorn. The eggs hatch in April, which is perfect timing for the caterpillars to feed on the new growth of leaves.

The Winter Moth is another appropriately-named species which flies from November to February. This rather drab moth can be found in woods, parks and gardens of all types where the caterpillars feed on a wide variety of trees in the spring. The caterpillars can strip leaves very quickly, and in some places it is regarded as a pest, particularly in orchards. In common with a few other moth species only the male moths are able to fly. The flightless females have very tiny wing stumps and rely on the males finding them for mating. Like all moths, the females produce powerful pheromones which can attract male moths from some distance. The males can even fly on very cold nights as their bodies contain a type of anti-freeze. So watch out for them fluttering in the car headlights if you are driving down a wooded lane on a cold winter night!

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