Insects typically spend the winter in a species-specific diapause stage. The speckled wood butterfly, Pararge aegeria, is unique in having two alternative diapause stages, hibernating as larvae or pupae. In southern Sweden this creates a seasonal flight pattern with four annual adult flight periods: the first in May (pupal diapause), the second in June (larval diapause), and the third and fourth directly developing offspring generations in July and August, respectively. We address the raison d'être of the two diapause pathways by (1) outdoor rearing of cohorts, and (2) performing transect censuses throughout the season for 20 years. We contend that an early start of next season provides a benefit accruing to pupal diapause; conversely, a large proportion of the offspring from adults of the fourth flight peak are unable to reach the pupal stage before winter, providing a benefit accruing to larval winter diapause. The results obtained show that the two hibernation pathways are unlikely to be genetically distinct because of a strong overlap between the two offspring generations, and because sibling offspring from the third and fourth flight periods are likely to choose either of the two hibernation pathways, thereby resulting in a genetic mixing of the pathways. © 2011 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2011, 102, 635–649.