What are these butterflies doing?

The Question: Recently, I saw a butterfly holding on to another butterfly beneath him. It caught my eye when the two began to spiral downward into a field of grass. The “carrier” was able to ascend again and flew off holding the butterfly that appeared to be one of his own kind. Do you know why the “carrier” was doing this?
Submitted by: Judy, USA

The Short Answer: The butterflies were mating. Here’s a short video clip showing monarch butterflies doing exactly what you describe.


Warning, this one is a little dizzying: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-kFgUVhK4I

According to Martin Olofsson, who studies butterfly behavior at Stockholm University in Sweden, when two mating butterflies are disturbed while copulating, they may try to fly away together, with one member of the couple as the carrier and the other going along limply as the carried. Interestingly, within a species, it is always the same sex that carries. In one species it’s males, in another it’s the females.

More Information: The data, Olofsson says, suggest that this behavior is about escaping from predators and not about “mate-guarding.” Mate-guarding is a collection of behaviors common in many animals, where males will guard their mate to prevent other males from fertilizing her eggs. In birds, fish and mammals this might involve chasing other males away from a territory. In insects, mate-guarding often involves staying physically attached to a female long enough for sperm to find their way to the female’s eggs, or for the female to stop being receptive.

It’s possible that in some species at least, the butterfly behavior of flying off with a mate may be a male’s attempt to hide the mated female from other males.  Olofsson, points out, however, that females carry the males in some butterflies, so that makes male mate-guarding unlikely as a general explanation for this behavior.  It might, however, be an added benefit, at least in those species where males do the carrying.

Thank you to:  Martin Olofsson for his generous help.

Cite this article as: Pelletier, TC. (July 27, 2011). What are these butterflies doing? Retrieved from http://askanaturalist.com/what-are-these-butterflies-doing/ on July 3, 2020.

23 thoughts on “What are these butterflies doing?”

  1. Hi last week I saw a butterfly carry another one by its wings both facing same direction and was wondering if the butterfly being carried had died ? if so what was the butterfly going to do with its dead partner?

  2. I saw a monarch butterfly carrying another by the wings both facing the same direction. What does this mean, I have never seen this before. Very interested to find out.

    [Faye, I moved your comment from another article to this one, that is more relevant. Tom for AskaNaturalist.com]

  3. I forwarded your comment/question about the behavior you observed to Dr. Martin Olofsson, who studies butterfly mating behavior. He said:

    The behavior described by the observer is not part of a natural behavior in butterflies. However, monarchs and many other butterflies engage in quite extended courtship flights and in some species the male repeatedly flies closely over the female to make her perceive his sex pheromones. Potentially, during a short time period it might appear as if the male actually holds the female but this is not the case. Another explanation is that the observer observed a very very unlikely and odd event, or that the butterflies had got stuck to each other e.g. by spider web or something like that.

  4. I have a picture of two butterflies who seemed to have been mating and one died. It is clearly dead. I was wondering if I should pull them apart but did not in fear I would harm the living one. I did remove the ants from the dead one and move them to another spot. My question is a two part. 1. What causes this to happen? I’ve seen it several times in the past few years. 2. Would it be wise to attempt to help the living one or will they separate on their own? I’m not sure where to post the picture. Thank you for your time.

  5. Wendy, I’m not sure. Could be that one of them was diseased. If you want to email me the picture, I would be interested to see it, and I’ll see if I can find anyone who might have any answer. Send it to tom@askanaturalist.com. Thanks, Tom

  6. I have a same case it appears the butterfly was trying to get apart and before i could catch them (near big spider webs) the below one has died. I assume from the way the top one was slamming it into everything trying to get apart.

  7. Easter day 2016…Today I saw a dead butterfly lying on the ground. It was yellow and I noticed it as a friend and I stood talking. A minute later another yellow butterfly flew by and seemed to notice the dead one. It fluttered down to the ground, picked up the dead one and flew away with it. It was very unusual. Any thoughts?

  8. I saw 2 butterfly’s yesterday and one seemed to be pursuing the other as hadn’t hooked up but we’re very close to one another the whole time. At first they were right in front of me but didn’t have phone to film them and once I did got some great shots of my doggie trying to get them. Would like to share it but guess this doesn’t accept videos, but was very interesting and now I know what was happening.

  9. Sir I have seen in several times one common crow continue hovering on another common crow(sat on branch). Is it mating behavioural approach?

  10. Hi Rajib, it’s a good thing I looked up “common crow in India” because I didn’t know there is a butterfly called “common crow.” Here in the United States, a crow is a bird. So now that I know you are talking about a butterfly and not a crow, what you are describing could very well be a mating behavior. Did you ever see the hovering one approach?

  11. I have rescued a female Monarch which had a dented chrysalis after a fall, and consequently is missing part of her upper and lower left wings. She is otherwise healthy and will try to flt about, but cannot get very high. My question is whether or not there is a chance she could mate if I release her, and more specifically if the male or female is the carrier in Monarch mating. Thank you.

  12. I saw many butterflies seeming to try and get a dead butterfly moving. Is that a thing? They wouldnt leave its side. Broke my heart.

  13. Saw 2 Monarch butterflies fling in tandem about 1 foot from eachother. Lasted about 4 minutes. They were not touching. I have seen this on 2 different days near dusk.

  14. I saw a butterfly somehow carrying another butterfly of the same type by the wings both facing the same direction quite a great distance. Across a field and up into the trees. It was working hard. This was not a momentary thing and they were definitely connected. The lower ones wings were pinched together, it never fluttered. I thought it might be hurt? Thoughts?

  15. Hi Kimberly, that sounds like two butterflies mating. Depending on the species, it can last minutes or even hours. Tom

  16. Yesterday I saw a butterfly trying to move a clearly dead butterfly and was unsuccessful. I walked by again 10 minutes later and it was still trying. Moving the dead one almost in a circle. It was sad. I have a video but I’m not sure how to attach it.

  17. In the past year, I have had to separate one pair of Monarchs and one pair of Gulf Fritillary Butterflies who have mated and then find it impossible to separate. In both cases they were attached all day and basicially just sitting there unable to do anything. In both cases I picked them up by the wings and gentle pulled them apart. They seemed much happier as they flew off for parts unknown. I do not believe I hurt them in anyway.

  18. In the past two days I saw two separate incidents in which a monarch butterfly was flying holding a butterfly of another variety below it. Both were right side up and facing the same way. The first incident was a yellow and black swallowtail, the second was, I think, a black swallowtail. Both observations were made in the same location, on an orchard in Massachusetts. What do you think might have been happening?

  19. Hi Elizabeth & her Grandfather, first off, what is OCNJ? And when you ask for an explanation, what do you mean? Thanks, Tom

  20. Hello. Today I saw a monarch carrying a dead monarch. It was clearly dead and decomposing. It’s seems others are seeing the same thing. Why?

  21. When I was about 7 or 8 I was over at my grandparents house and saw two butterflies that seemed to be combined into one body, it was so cool! They were flying by the pine tree in the backyard, I grabbed my dad’s phone to take a picture and showed it to my grandma, she died a few mounts after this, and she told me they were monarchs.

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