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How Do Moths and Butterflies Survive a New York City Winter?

On Exhibit posts

What happens to butterflies and moths during winter in New York? This post, adapted from A Seasonal Guide to New York City's Invertebrates, written by Elizabeth A. Johnson, explains a bit about how the four-stage life cycle of these insects helps them survive the cold. Published by the Museum's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, the book can easily be downloaded, along with a series of other helpful booklets about nature.

They may seem as delicate as gossamer, but moths and butterflies routinely survive the cold, harsh weather of New York winters. How do they do it? After all, they are small, without any insulating fur or feathers, and cannot generate their own body heat as mammals and birds do.

Eastern Comma Winter Butterfly

Comma butterflies, like this Eastern comma, survive cold winters as adults by secreting chemicals that act as antifreeze within their own bodies.

Liza Daly


Some adult invertebrates like these overwinter in protected shelters. One way they withstand freezing temperatures is by secreting chemicals that act as antifreeze to prevent the formation of ice crystals in their bodies. The comma and mourning cloak butterflies are two such insects. (Visit The Butterfly Conservatory, now on view, to see hundreds of live, tropical butterflies from around the world.)

On milder winter days, with temperatures in the 40s°, these butterflies may even emerge to bask, their dark scales absorbing the heat of the sun.

Mourning cloak winter butterfly

Mourning cloak butterflies (Nymphalis antiopa) overwinter in protected shelters, sometimes emerging to bask on warmer days.

Jerry A. Payne/USDA Agricultural Research Service/bugwood.org


Winter moths such as straight-toothed sallow, Morrison’s sallow, and Grote’s pinion may also be seen on mild, humid winter nights, insulated by dense hairs on their bodies. 

Some adult invertebrates simply die when the cold weather arrives, leaving their offspring to survive in a protected dormant stage as eggs, larvae, or pupae. Woolly bears (caterpillars of the Isabella tiger moth) find protection under thick layers of leaf litter.

Woolly bear caterpillar winter

Banded woolly bears are the caterpillars of Isabella tiger moths.

Whitney Cranshaw/Colorado State University/bugwood.org


Below is an Isabella tiger moth as an adult.

Isabella tiger moth

Isabella tiger moths survive winter in the larval stage, as caterpillars; in warmer weather, they become active again, pupate, and later emerge as adults, like the one you see here.

Steve Jurvetson


And polyphemus moth pupae are sheltered in their cocoons during the winter.

Polyphemus pupa cocoon

Moths and butterflies undergo a four-stage metamorphosis from embryo, to larva, to pupa, and finally to the winged adults. Moths' pupae are often encased in a cocoon, as with the polyphemus moth's here.

Lacy L. Hyche/Auburn University/bugwood.org


Here's a polyphemus moth in warmer weather, as an adult.

Polyphemus moth

Kevin D. Arvin/bugwood.org


Photographed any winter moths or butterflies, or any other invertebrates, in New York City? Share them at New York is Wild!, the Museum's project at iNaturalist.org, where anyone can upload images and learn more about the wildlife of the City.

For more about moths, see Winged Tapestries: Moths at Large, featuring the art of Jim des Rivières, is produced by the Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, Canada. 

The presentation of Winged Tapestries at the American Museum of Natural History is made possible by the generosity of 
the Arthur Ross Foundation.

Lord & Taylor is the proud sponsor of the The Butterfly Conservatory.

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