KC Gardens

Give butterflies a cozy spot to spend the winter

Planting pollinator-friendly flowers is just one step; butterflies such as this tiger swallowtail need protected places to overwinter in Kansas City.
Planting pollinator-friendly flowers is just one step; butterflies such as this tiger swallowtail need protected places to overwinter in Kansas City.

Many have answered the call, adding plants to their gardens that attract and sustain pollinators such as butterflies and moths. Planting the correct mix of flowers that provide a nectar source and specific plants with the right foliage for feeding the young is a good start to helping rebuild a fragile ecosystem.

Each of us taking small, simple steps toward creating pollinator-friendly habitats does make a difference. Your little pollinator planting connects to the neighbor’s down the street, which connects with someone else’s patch planted even farther away, creating a network that makes it easier for these creatures to find vital food sources.

As with any living species, insects must complete all the necessary stages of development to successfully reproduce. The stages of butterfly development are egg, larvae (or caterpillar), chrysalis or pupa, and adult. This is where the next step for creating a pollinator-friendly habitat comes into play.

Butterflies and moths spend the winter in various stages of their life cycle. For example, the adult monarch butterfly spends the winter in Mexico. It passes through Kansas City on its fall migration to the warmer winter climate. Monarchs return the following spring to start the life cycle anew.

Other butterfly species like swallowtails overwinter in KC. Many of them spend their winter in a protective chrysalis or pupa. In order for the life cycle to begin next season, they must survive the winter.

Chrysalises and pupas are amazingly hardy, able to withstand our harsh winter conditions. Guess what their main threat is. Us!

These small but mighty overwintering structures are often hidden from our view, and in our zeal to clean up the garden, we often throw them out with the yard waste. To change from one stage to the next, larvae crawl to a protected location, attach to something and change into the chrysalis. There they will hang during winter, subjected to the extremes, just waiting for warmer spring conditions to emerge as a beautiful butterfly or moth.

Gardeners can protect these overwintering structures by reducing fall garden cleanup. Dried stems of perennials, grasses and other plants make ideal locations for butterfly chrysalises and pupas to hang out in their winter survival mode. By leaving the debris, you are protecting this important stage of development and taking one more step toward increasing the number of vital pollinators.

Together we can all do our part to help support nature. We are planting more native plants, which support the adult and caterpillar stages of development. Now let’s take that next step. Help our pollinators survive the Kansas City winter by not getting into such a rush to clean up the garden.

Dennis Patton is a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. Got a question for him or other university extension experts? Email them to garden.help@jocogov.org or visit KCGardens.KansasCity.com.