On a wing and a prayer: Winnipeg man finds live butterfly in his garage — in January

A Winnipeg family is harbouring an unexpected guest after a butterfly was found hiding out inside their garage over the weekend — alive.

'What do you do with a butterfly in the middle of winter?'

This black swallowtail butterfly, aptly named Frostbite Bill, was found in a Winnipeg garage on January 27, when the temperature reached a high of –19 C. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

A Winnipeg family is harbouring an unexpected guest after a butterfly was found hiding out inside their garage over the weekend — alive.

"It can't do anything but put a smile on your face, you know, to just see something so beautiful like that when you're not expecting it," said John Watson, who made the discovery on Sunday.

Watson was working in his heated garage in Crestview when he came upon a black swallowtail butterfly.

"I look on the ground and there's a butterfly and it was the weirdest thing," said Watson.

"At first I thought it was certainly not alive, and I crouched down and boom it started fluttering," he said.

While the entire province remains under an extreme cold warning, temperatures plunged into the –30s over the weekend, so Watson cranked the heat up in his garage a few degrees to do some work on a project.

He found the winged creature near a pile of scrap wood and figured the butterfly must have been confused.

"Likely, some little guy crawled in there in the fall time and said 'hey this looks like a great spot to park up,' but unfortunately he woke up at the wrong time," said Watson.

John Watson found this black swallowtail butterfly inside his heated garage over the weekend. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Watson and his wife immediately tried to make arrangements for their tiny guest.

"First of all, what do you do with a butterfly in the middle of winter?" said Watson.

"I figured it was likely not particularly happy, so we cut up some oranges and got it sitting on there and sure enough it started to feed a little bit."

Watson brought the butterfly, who is aptly nicknamed Frostbite Bill, into his home — where he already has a heated enclosure for a pair of leopard tortoises — and made him comfortable.

"I'll take it as maybe an early spring sign," Watson joked.

'Unusual ... but not out of the question'

Jordan Bannerman, an instructor in the entomology department at the University of Manitoba, said while the (eastern) black swallowtail is quite common in Manitoba, finding one alive in the dead of winter is not.

"It's unusual, but if you understand their basic lifecycle it's not out of the question," said Bannerman.

Bannerman said the species is found all over North America east of the Rocky Mountains and is commonly found close to where people live.

The Watsons have been feeding the butterfly pieces of fruit on a sugar-soaked cotton ball to keep him going. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

"It's a species that is very often seen in residential areas because it quite happily feeds on a variety of plants that we grow in our gardens," he said.

"The caterpillar, for example, feeds on things like carrot, parsley, dill, fennel, Queen Anne's lace as well."

Bannerman said the black swallowtail can likely produce at least two generations per year and that one of those would spend its immature pupal stage over-wintering inside a chrysalis, the hardened body of a butterfly pupa that is often mistakenly called a cocoon.

"What likely happened in this case is that caterpillar wandered off its plant and ended up pupating inside the garage and then had a nice cozy place to continue developing," he said.

Bannerman said it could have matured faster given the warmer conditions inside the garage, and Watson's turning up the heat could have triggered it further.

"An increase in temperature could have been all it took for a butterfly to emerge," he said.

Bannerman said providing the butterfly soft fruits to feed on, as the Watsons are doing, should keep it going for a few weeks. But it likely won't live to see spring because their life expectancy isn't that long.

Watson has the butterfly inside this mesh enclosure inside a heated space where he keeps his pet tortoises. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Watson said Frostbite Bill will live out his days in the warmth of his turtle enclosure.

"Hopefully we can just let him have as much peace as he can have right now," he said.

In the meantime, it's given the family a little taste of spring.

"It does warm you up a little bit on the inside, to think you've got a butterfly sitting here."

About the Author

Holly Caruk

Video Journalist

Holly Caruk is a video journalist with CBC Manitoba. She began her career as a photo journalist in 2007 and began reporting in 2015. Born and raised in Manitoba, Holly is a graduate of the University of Manitoba's film studies program and Red River College's creative communications program. Email: