By BARBARA PERRY LAWSON
Some butterflies hibernate, over-wintering in deep crevices of rock or tree bark. Mourning cloak and tortoiseshell butterflies are among those that hibernate.
On warm days of late winter and early spring, you may see mourning cloak butterflies flitting along woodland paths. Their dark puce wings (I rarely get to use this word, which means purplish brown) are trimmed on the outer edges by a lacy border of creamy yellow trimming a row of small purple spots.
The drab undersides of the wings are beautifully camouflaged when this insect lands on tree bark. Their front two legs are smaller than the other two pairs and held in such a way that they may appear to have fewer legs than the six legs typical of insects.
In England, this butterfly is known as the Camberwell Beauty and is greatly prized.
The larvae are black with small white spots and a row of red spots on their backs. Several rows of black bristles run down their backs, and they have rusty brown legs. After breeding, the female mourning cloak lays pale eggs in groups on or around twigs of favorite food trees.
When the eggs hatch in two or three weeks, the caterpillars will be found feeding in groups. They eat, grow and molt for about a month, until they are a couple of inches long.
Each larva pupates in a sheltered spot, turning into a gray to tan chrysalis. Within about two weeks, the adult butterfly emerges, its soft wings slowly expanding as bodily fluid helps them become rigid.
The mourning cloak is a large butterfly with a wing span of about three inches, while the tortoiseshell is only about two inches in wing span. The mourning cloak is far more common.
The diet of the mourning cloak larvae includes the foliage of willows, birch, poplar and elm. The adult can be found feeding on nectar from early blooming plants and also decaying fruit and also tree sap, especially from maples.
FLAP & GLIDE
When you see a butterfly flapping, then gliding – that will be the pattern for this, the first butterfly of spring. There will be fewer of them later in the spring when most will have mated, laid eggs and died.
Watch for the mating dance of the mourning cloaks. They chase each other, then fly up in spirals that take them 30 feet or more up in the air. Then one will drop to the earth while the other slowly glides down.
When the weather turns cooler again, as it often does at this time of year, the mourning cloak butterflies will disappear, once more seeking the shelter of tree bark or cracks in rocks.