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GardenSMART :: Mourning Cloak Butterfly

Mourning Cloak Butterfly

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

The mourning cloak, Nymphalis antiopa, is one of the prettiest butterflies you are ever likely to see. It is also one of the easiest to identify, since mourning cloaks don’t resemble any other butterfly. And if you live in the colder parts of North America, it may be one of the earliest butterflies you see in spring, even before the snow has melted from the ground.

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Photograph by Sturgis McKeever, Georgia Southern University, Bugwood.org.

A large butterfly, the wingspan of a mourning cloak can be up to four inches wide. The tops of the wings are dark maroon or chocolate brown with a glittery yellow edge and iridescent blue spots.

But when a mourning cloak closes its wings, the unremarkable black and gray coloring on its underside blends perfectly with its surroundings. Perched on a tree trunk, the butterfly becomes invisible to predators.

GardenSMART Article Image

Photograph by Steven Katovich, Bugwood.org.

Mourning cloaks are found throughout most of the U.S., Canada, and parts of Mexico, as well as Eurasia. They are less frequent the further south you go. Quite adaptable, they live in rural, suburban, and urban areas, including parks and gardens, and are most reliably found near freshwater sources.

Mating is in the spring. Females lay yellowish-colored eggs on twigs and later on leaves after they emerge. The eggs darken in color as they get close to hatching.

GardenSMART Article Image

Photograph by Steven Katovich, Bugwood.org.

Caterpillars are black with eight large red spots, rows of tiny white spots, and black spines. The spines can deliver a sting, so avoid touching them. They are about two inches long when fully grown. Caterpillars live together in one large web, eating the leaves of willow, cottonwood, oaks, elms, paper birch, and hackberry trees. This varied diet is one reason for their successful survival and expansive spread across North America.

Mourning cloak caterpillars can occasionally feed in such numbers that they defoliate a tree. Spraying Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is the control if feeding gets out of hand.

After pupation, they emerge as butterflies in late spring and early summer. During the hottest period of summer, they aestivate – enter a period of dormancy that is the summer equivalent of winter hibernation.

Adult mourning cloak butterflies are more interested in tree sap than flower nectar, particularly oak tree sap. On trees, they feed with their heads facing down. They will also feed on rotting fruit and the honeydew from aphids. This disinclination for flower nectar means mourning cloaks are not considered to be important pollinators.

Some adults migrate south in the fall, but most hibernate under tree bark, in woodpiles and even in manmade places such as sheds. They are often the first butterflies seen in the spring. Adults seek out warm, sunlit places to ‘bask’, emerging on balmy days in the winter. There is usually only one generation per year.

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Photograph by Steven Katovich, Bugwood.org.

With a lifespan of 10 or 11 months, they are one of the longest-lived of any butterfly, and their numbers are such that they are not considered threatened.

How did the mourning cloak get its common name? It was likely a long time ago, when custom demanded that women wear dark colored clothing for up to a year after the death of a loved one. One British butterfly expert writes that the wings remind him of a young woman who defiantly lets the hem of her brilliant yellow and blue skirt peek out from beneath her plain cloak.


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