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Posts tagged “Nymphalis antiopa

Mourning Cloaks Surviving On Sap

4-25-17 mourning cloak IMG_2827

Who doesn’t celebrate at the sight of a Mourning Cloak butterfly gliding through the woods on soft, spring breezes? Because the adults spend the winter hibernating behind loose bark, Mourning Cloaks are among the first butterflies to take flight in the spring. Most butterflies overwinter as eggs or pupae inside chrysalises, and have to complete metamorphosis before they can take to the air.

Surviving in March and April, when there is little, if any, nectar to be found, is challenging. Mourning Cloaks sustain themselves with the sap that exudes from broken tree branches or wounds in tree trunks. Oaks are their preferred source of sap. When they find some, they walk down the trunk to the sap and feed head downward (see photo).

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Mourning Cloak Butterflies Out From Under Tree Bark

mourning cloak butterfly IMG_5755Mourning Cloaks have recently emerged from under loose bark where they hibernated all winter. These early flyers, along with a few other species such as commas and tortoiseshells, have a jump start in the spring due to their not having to go through metamorphosis like most butterflies. Born last summer, Mourning Cloaks live for roughly ten months (longer than most butterflies), overwintering and breeding and laying eggs soon after appearing in the spring. This summer their larvae will feed on willows and poplars before pupating and emerging as adults in time to seek shelter for the winter. With snow still on the ground, nectar is quite scarce, leaving butterflies that are active this time of year dependent on tree sap available where branches have broken for much of their sustenance.

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Mourning Cloak Butterflies Emerging from Hibernation

4-11-13 mourning cloak IMG_2827

A male mourning cloak butterfly basks in the sun on an eastern hemlock while its dark wings act as solar collectors, warming the hemolymph (a circulatory fluid analogous to blood) in the wing veins and returning the warmed fluid to the butterfly’s body until it reaches a temperature sufficient for flight. This butterfly has just emerged from hibernating in a sheltered spot, such as behind loose bark. Because they overwinter as adults, mourning cloaks are one of the first butterflies to be seen in the spring.  The adults mate and lay eggs, and the caterpillars that hatch from the eggs will metamorphose into adults in June or July.  After feeding for a short time, the adults become dormant (estivate) until fall, when they re-emerge to feed and store energy for hibernation.


Mourning Cloak Butterflies

With the warm temperatures this week, mourning cloak butterflies have been seen gliding through the leafless woods.  Like eastern commas, question marks and red admirals, mourning cloaks overwinter as adults.  They resemble dead leaves so much that from a distance the entire insect seems to disappear.  Up close you can see the velvety texture of the wing scales, said to resemble the clothing mourners used to wear; hence, their common name. Mourning cloaks live up to ten months — an impressive life span for a butterfly.  As they age, the yellow border of their wings fades to an off-white.


Butterflies that Overwinter as Adults

With all the warm weather this week, butterflies are suddenly appearing out of nowhere. Unlike most butterflies, which typically spend the winter as eggs or pupae (inside of chrysalises), red admirals, mourning cloaks and eastern commas (pictured) simply slip out from behind loose bark, where they overwintered as adults, and take to the air. Those species of butterflies which spent the winter as eggs or pupae must undergo metamorphosis this spring, and won’t appear in their adult form until later in the year. With so few wildflowers out now, especially this year, sap from broken tree branches sustains early-emerging butterflies!