The Mourning Cloak, Nymphalis antiopa, is one of the most common butterflies to be found in many regions throughout the world. There are several reasons why this handsome flier is so prevalent, but one of the most influential factors is that it uses a vareity of well known host plants, such as the Poplar, Cottonwood, Willow and Elm. These ardent trees are often wide spread and ample in supply, so it is no surprise that the butterfly, which depends on them, is also happily represented.
Mourning Cloak’s, like other Tortoiseshells and Anglewings, overwinter as adult’s and do not migrate. This, along with their ability to efficiently absorb heat into their dark scales, contributes to their having a longer season in which to frequent our skies. These hearty fliers are often among the very first butterflies to be seen in the spring and one of the last to disappear from sight in the fall.
Besides being conspicuous in their adult stage, Mourning Cloaks, are also known for their gregarious social behaviors as caterpillars. It is clear that they support the “There is Safety in Numbers” philosophy. Mourning Cloaks eggs are most always laid by the female in large groups and remain in this close knit formation throughout their larval stage. Birds and other predators are sure to be frightened off by a rowdy crowd of up to 50 or more spiky red and black caterpillars who may menacingly shake the branch in unison when threatened.
Only after having filled their voracious appetites, moving together, stripping one branch after another of its foliage, do the larva part ways. Trees appear to be raining caterpillars when the Mourning Cloaks begin to drop from them like parachuters. It seems as if these stealthy crawlers are fleeing the scene of a crime when they free fall unto the ground quickly seeking to distance themselves from their host plant. After taking the plunge, the caterpillars will journey alone until they find a safe place to pupate, metamorphose from chrysalis to butterfly, and be earth bound travelers no more.
Nymphalis antiopa is a delightful species which spreads it’s wings throughout many countries, populating parts of Europe, Asia and the North American Continent. In England, this butterfly is known as the Camberwell Beauty, but worldwide is called by many other names such as Grand Surprise and White Petticoat.
In North America, due to its resemblance to a traditional cloak worn when one is “in mourning”, it has been given the title Mourning Cloak, but no matter where or by whom this reddish-brown, cream and blue beauty is spied, I think all can agree that she is a not at all sorrowful, but instead a true joy to behold.