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Sleeping Beauties

  • Mon 13th Dec, 2021

A dark evening during November in Scarborough Cricket Club’s function room was the last place I expected to see a butterfly! As I set up my projector to deliver a talk on the Wildlife of the North York Moors National Park a small tortoiseshell flew around my head. Wow that’s a good sign, have you got any other party tricks? said one of the audience members. The small tortoiseshell had been disturbed in some way from its resting place and awaken from what I thought was hibernation...

This got me thinking how little I know about how butterflies hibernate. The first thing I learnt was that insects do not strictly hibernate in the same way mammals do. Ok, now I need to change my terminology! Butterflies and many other insects, cued by environmental stimuli such as daylight length or temperature enter either a quiescence and/or a full-on diapause.

A quiescence is the temporary slowing down of metabolism whereas diapause is an actual delay in an individual’s biological development. During the winter this could be a delay in the biological and chemical processes which would eventually lead to reproductive development. In many species these two functions follow each other. A diapause is followed by a period of quiescence as development starts but dormancy continues as the butterfly slowly becomes active again.

And whilst we are firmly in geek land maybe we need to answer the inevitable question; why don’t butterflies freeze during diapause? Their bodies remain just above freezing thanks to a fantastic ability to create a chemical ‘anti-freeze’ in their blood; glycerol. It also helps if you choose the warm function room at Scarborough Cricket Club!

If you find a butterfly in your house and need to move it Butterfly Conservation give the following advice:

“The best solution is to rehouse the butterfly into a suitable location. Catch the butterfly carefully and place it into a cardboard box or similar, in a cool place for half an hour or so to see if it will calm down. Once calmed down you might be able to gently encourage the sleepy butterfly out onto the wall or ceiling of an unheated room or building such as a shed, porch, garage or outhouse. Just remember that the butterfly will need to be able to escape when it awakens in early spring”

Richard Baines

Yorkshire Coast Nature

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