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Few sights in nature are more naturally joyous than a butterfly in flight. It stands to reason, therefore, that there are few sights more depressing than a butterfly who isn’t just not flying, but not moving at all.
We like to imagine butterflies to be such buoyant airborne free spirits, and so to see them grounded is a sight no one wants to see.
So why does this happen?
The truth is there are myriad possibilities for why a pet or wild butterfly may not be moving. Some are minor and fleeting and others more severe, and some causes can be remedied a lot more easily than others.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of the reasons why butterflies may be motionless and what, if anything, you can do about it.
1 – Broken Wings
Let’s get the worst out of the way first – if you have a butterfly that has a broken wing, chances are it will never fly again. What’s worse, there’s every chance that it will soon cease to move ever again, as a butterfly with a broken wing may well be too injured to save.
Butterfly wings are quite complex, so you almost certainly can’t fix them yourself (and will likely just make things worse and potentially make the butterfly suffer even more in the process).
Technically a professional entomologist may be able to help, but the chances of finding one, getting them to help, and them having the right tools would be a pretty impossibly lucky “Butterfly Effect” chain of events.
The good news here is that, while there are several ways a butterfly’s wings may become damaged (and we’ll touch on a couple in a second), they’re actually a lot sturdier than you may think. For example, the old wives’ tale of touching a butterfly and damaging its wings is mostly untrue.
As long as you’re very gentle, the butterflies should be fine.
2 – Shelter From the Storm
One of the biggest reasons why a butterfly may not be moving is that it is sheltering in place during a storm to protect itself.
Butterflies cannot take rough winds or rain – unlike your touch, this may well irreparably damage their wings, if it doesn’t kill them outright.
Instead, they shelter as completely as possible, often remaining motionless to avoid getting pelted with snow or rain and to conserve energy while doing so.
Remember, butterflies are cold-blooded. If it gets too cold, they may not be able to move their muscles.
Even if it isn’t rainy or windy outside, cold alone can cause a butterfly to seek out shelter. Butterflies are cold-blooded, and they cannot tolerate temperatures below 55 degrees Fahrenheit very well.
Needless to say, butterflies are not “dreaming of a White Christmas.” An unusually severe winter storm in Mexico in January 1981 killed 2.5 million monarch butterflies, and a similar snowstorm in 2016 killed 1.5 million.
Long story short, if you see butterflies motionless during a storm, you shouldn’t be too worried, and shouldn’t disturb them – they’re simply trying to ride out what is for them a rough time.
That said, if it’s literally freezing outside, that could kill them, and they’d probably be grateful to be let in somewhere nice and warm for a while.
3 – Getting Ready to Hibernate
As winter draws on, in an attempt to stop from freezing, butterflies may freeze in place and begin hibernation, or as it’s referred to by entomologists, “dormancy.”
Those that do this, form a hard chrysalis, while those that stay awake for winter seek out tiny nooks and crannies to try and wait out the long winter.
The period during which butterflies do this is known as diapause, and it is one of the most important aspects of a butterfly’s life cycle. In fact, disrupting it can cause the butterfly to die.
In preparation for hibernation, butterflies often have to eat a lot of food and thus build up a lot of energy. For that to be of use, however, they need to make sure to conserve that energy, and that can mean staying in a single place for a long time.
This is another case where you’ll want to leave a motionless butterfly well enough alone, since waking a hibernating butterfly can kill it.
Left to their own devices, many butterfly species will hibernate from late autumn through the whole of winter to late reemerge at the start of spring, around March or April.
If you find a dormant butterfly in your home and wish to help it along:
- Make sure that it has a dry, warm place to stay for the reasons mentioned above
- Transparent containers that can let in sunlight are a good choice for a makeshift butterfly home
- If the butterfly awakes and starts to fly around, it may be hungry; sugar water or honey mixed with hot water can make for good butterfly food
- If you do feed the butterfly, soak the solution in a sponge or paper towel and let the butterfly lap it up from there
- Above all, do not startle the butterfly or force it to prematurely wake up or start flying
4 – Ophryocystis Elektroscirrha
For those not in the know, OE is, according to Monarch Joint Venture, a protozoan parasite that can debilitate an infected butterfly to the point of it not moving and potentially dying.
These spores can be found on eggs, milkweed leaves, larvae, and other areas. These parasites can cause butterflies to have severe health problems and potentially die.
Captive-bred monarchs are actually a potential source of OE. While it may be tempting to release monarchs or other captive-bred butterflies into the wild at weddings and other festivals, doing so may spread OE and other parasites to wild butterflies, causing them to become infected, grow motionless, and die.
5 – Playing Dead
In addition to these more serious causes, there is also the possibility that your butterfly may simply be playing dead. This is especially true if there are predators around.
For example, the aptly-named mourning cloak butterfly will sometimes do just this, feigning death to make would-be predators pass them by.
6 – Short Lives
Sometimes, the most obvious answers happen to be true. If you find a butterfly and it isn’t moving, it may be at death’s door.
This is easily one of the most common answers. If that seems unlikely, consider that many butterfly species only live a few weeks.
One reason you won’t find given for a butterfly being motionless is that they’re asleep. That’s because butterflies don’t sleep in the same way we do.
While butterflies do go into a rest period at night, they do so with their eyes open and are more alert than we are while sleeping.
There are several potential reasons why a butterfly may not be moving.
Sometimes this may have to do with the weather or hibernation, in which case you may be able to help them along a bit.
Other times it may be due to things more outside your control, such as disease or death itself.
Either way, for as natural as butterflies in flight seem to us, there are many perfectly normal reasons why you may find one not moving instead.