Christmas Eve. We are at a friends house for our annual traditional gathering. The cinnamon and cloves from my warm mulled wine fill my nostrils. The soft voice of Michael Buble plays in the background, while the children and their friends are running round with more energy than I can imagine possible at half-six in the evening. I take a break from the several conversations happening at once so my head can have a breather. With my three and a half year chromic sinusitis my head struggles to focus when more than one people are talking at the same time. It throbs. I can’t focus on who is saying what. Sometimes it feels antisocial to break away for a moment, but at the same time a few minutes of silence helps stop the piercing stabbing pain above my left eye.
It is here when I spot it. By the ancient thick stone windowsill sits a butterfly. A beautiful, if a little battered looking, tortoise shell butterfly. A butterfly here on Christmas Eve!
I always thought that butterflies died before the winter. What was it doing here: Waiting out the winter in the warm artificial heat? The life-span of a butterfly is around two to three months – not enough time to ride out the harsh winter months. There were no flowers in the house for it to feed on. It was an enigma. An exciting, elegant enigma.
So I started to read around, and I discovered something that I never knew before. I was shocked. What I had believed for 37 years turned out to be completely wrong.
Here’s what I knew. All insects, like butterflies, laid their eggs before the autumn where they would lay waiting until the first heat of spring told them it was time to hatch. The hungry caterpillars would greedily eat more than their body weight in fresh new foliage, plumping up, before wrapping themselves inside a claustrophobically tight cocoon. Inside, away from the light, away from the outside world, they change. Genes switch on transforming what was a caterpillar into a butterfly. A caterpillar and a butterfly: the same individual that looks like two completely different species. After delicately emerging from their little home in the summer, the adults would feed on nectar and find a mate to make more eggs, where the eggs would wait for spring once more. And so the cycle continues.
The eggs hatching, the big juicy caterpillars munching, and the butterfly emerging is all right. That’s the life-cycle of a butterfly. We all know that. It’s the timings I got wrong. Here’s the amazing thing. Some insects (like stick insects) do lay eggs which are in a state of suspension over winter, activating when the sun is higher in spring time. I thought all insects did this. But, not all of them do lay eggs patiently waiting under a leaf or a log over winter. Many insects lay eggs in spring. Which means that there are butterflies are around over winter.
Where are they? What do they feed on? I thought they only lived for a few months?
I discovered that some adult butterflies hibernate during the winter. Hibernate. Not strictly hibernating like a bear, but they are able to shut their bodies down in a kind of suspended animation. Tortoise shells, red admirals, peacock butterflies and others will find cold places towards the end of autumn, shut down their bodies and sleep until the warmness of spring awakens them again. They can sleep for months until this natural alarm clock stirs them from their slumber.
Of course like many of us, I have seen the incredible footage of millions of Monarch butterflies clinging to trees in Mexico where they literally freeze over winter until spring comes. Monarch butterflies hibernate. I knew that many years ago. I didn’t think that butterflies hibernated even though I saw the Monarch butterflies. I didn’t even make the connection when I saw that tortoise shell butterfly on Christmas Eve. I thought this gorgeous insect was living in the house, finding warmth in the cold darkness of winter.
It was like something clicked. Something I had long thought was the way things were wasn’t at all. It turns out lots of different insects have different ways of coping with the bitterness of the winter months. Some insects, like adult bees and ladybirds, will huddle together during the colder months: a mass of bodies providing warmth. Others, like ants, will live deeper in their underground homes, escaping the harshness of the cold soil above. Some, like adult stink bugs, will actually invade homes to escape the chilly outside. Some insects have even developed an antifreeze by producing glycerol that lowers the freezing temperature for their bodies. And many butterflies will find a nice tree and hang there, shutting their bodies down until spring comes again. And of course, I found out that butterflies, like tortoise shells, red admirals and others, will find a nice, safe cold place indoors.
Many sheltered places these butterflies find are houses, sheds, and garages. They will shut off everything until the warmth triggers their bodies to awaken again. The trouble is that many of these places are unnaturally heated. The alarm clock has set off too early. And this can be disastrous. Because they are awake, and their life span is so short, they will die either in the house, or outside long before the spring comes. (You can help if you see one fluttering around in your house during winter. Carefully get the butterfly in a tub with air holes (without touching the wings) and move it to a cold part of the house, or rehome it in the shed. Here it will close its body down, and go back to sleep again until the natural time to wake up.)
I’m not a superstitious or religious person (are the two the same?). I don’t believe in ghosts or the supernatural. (Although for some reason I find horror films with ghosts much more tense and terrifying than monsters or serial killers. They actually make the hairs on my neck stand up and send a horrific shiver all the way down my spine. I know they are not real, but they genuinely scare the pants off me.) There is a little romantic side to this little meander. In folklores of old, many people believed that butterflies carried the souls of people who had passed away. Some people even believed that seeing a butterfly at Christmas was the spirit of a recently deceased loved one visiting.
I smiled a little when I read those folklore tales. My mum passed away unexpectedly just after new years day last year. Even after a year it is still a shock. Today it is still not real. How can someone who has been an important part in your life suddenly just not be there anymore?
I’ve never seen a butterfly in a house ever before. I doubt it was her soul visiting. Knowing her, it is much more likely she was chuckling and telling me to get back to enjoying the mulled wine. I know that’s obviously not true, but it’s nice to imagine it. One thing I do know, is that I will not look at tortoise shell butterflies the same ever again. In a way, now her spirit kind of does live on in them: I see these glorious butterflies often in the summer, and now I shall always see them with the thought of a wonderful woman who was taken away from us much too early.