Mourning Cloak Butterflies

Mourning Cloak Butterflies

I am real a nerd that at 41,  I still like to play with bugs.   I love butterflies probably the most out of all insects; they are like floating or flying flowers in the garden. A couple of Saturdays ago, like a child, I was outside scooping up caterpillars in the yard, off the tree trunk, on the side of the house, just about everywhere in the backyard.  I secretly brought them inside with a few branches of Chinese Elm and stuck them in a pop up laundry hamper in the back bathroom out of sight.   However, my project was promptly noticed by the kids, and they started regularly checking up on them.  Today, my daughter came running out from the laundry room giggling and shouting “We’ve got Butterflies! We’ve got Butterflies!”

Mourning Cloak Butterflies sitting in front of a sunny window in the laundry hamper

Every few years, typically in the Spring, we get an abundance of these Mourning Cloaks caterpillars in our Chinese Elm tree.  Their presence usually follows a fall tree trimming.  By the time they start climbing down from the tree, they are two inch long caterpillars, all black and prickly with red dots. They leave their host tree to pupate on other plants or man made structures.

A Mourning Cloak Caterpillar collected from the Chinese Elm tree in the backyard

Mourning Cloaks are an easy butterfly to take care of by feeding them cut up fresh fruit and spraying them a few times a day with a light mist of water.  When my daughter was three, we collected so many one day, we took them into preschool and each child got to take one home to pupate and release over the Spring break.  My son also did a science project on the Mourning Cloak’s metamorphosis in 4th grade, in 2008.  That was the last time we had these butterflies in abundance.  He determined that they emerge up to 3 days earlier when brought inside.

Laundry Hamper with the morning cloak caterpillars in front of a window

Mourning cloaks butterflies roam and migrate.  Because of this they are found almost everywhere their host plants are found including parks, suburbs, openings, woods and especially on the banks of rivers, all over north America excluding the gulf states.  Adult Mourning Cloaks eat a variety of things.  Tree sap is their favorite, and I think that is how they notice our tree most years after a trimming.  They also eat decaying fallen fruit.  The larva eat elm, willow, poplar,  floss silk trees leaves.  The caterpillars metamorphosis into chrysalis and are in that stage for 10 to 15 days. Once the Mourning Cloaks emerge they can live for 10 to 11 months, but we never keep them longer than a week or two before letting them go.

One of the morning cloak butterflies, as we release them

One thought on “Mourning Cloak Butterflies

  1. Hi there. Found you by looking under the coop section on I just love your garden and your chicken coop! You did a great job. I’ve been interested in having chickens for a while. Only now, I’m getting serious enough to start getting a brooder ready. Thanks for your inspiration!

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