Although winter can be a difficult time, there are species that manage to avoid the worst of its ravages by going into hibernation. Many are familiar to us: newts that retreat into the spaces under log piles, hedgehogs that bury themselves in last autumn’s leaves or ladybirds that squeeze into the cracks of a window frame. Most of these creatures will spend the winter unnoticed by homeowners and gardeners, but others may be chanced upon as logs are brought in from the woodpile or something is fetched from the garden shed.
This winter, a small tortoiseshell butterfly has chosen my shed and it is interesting that this butterfly should choose to overwinter as an adult. Very few of our resident butterflies overwinter as adults; the majority spend the winter as caterpillars, although nine species overwinter as eggs and eleven as pupae. It is also interesting to note that, with the exception of the speckled wood, the hibernating phase is always the same in a given species. The speckled wood can hibernate as either a caterpillar or a pupa. Along with the small tortoiseshell, the other species to overwinter as adults are comma, peacock and brimstone. To these can be added large tortoiseshell (though now thought to be extinct as a resident species), red admiral (though only in the extreme south of the country does overwintering appear to be successful) and Camberwell beauty (which overwinters occasionally). Many of these species will spend the winter in hollow trees or outbuildings but the beautifully camouflaged comma prefers to overwinter on exposed branches or among dead leaves and the brimstone hibernates deep within an evergreen shrub. During hibernation these butterflies must be vulnerable to predation by birds and this may be why many have evolved their camouflaged underwings. The peacock goes a step further and has evolved a warning display. If disturbed, the peacock will open its wings to their fullest extent to reveal the large ‘owl-like eye’ pattern on its wings. At the same time it produces a hissing sound by rubbing its wings together, something that is usually enough to scare off a would-be predator.
Once we receive a run of several days of warm, spring-like, weather many of the butterflies will emerge from hibernation to seek out nectar sources to replenish reserves lost over winter. None of the species is able to mate immediately on waking but needs to feed and bask in the sun to develop the eggs or sperm needed for the reproductive act. The butterfly can always re-enter hibernation if spring has not really arrived, although it will have lost vital reserves and be less likely to survive the remaining winter period.