If you take a walk outside on a sunny day in the summer, you are bound to see a Monarch Butterfly fluttering through the air around you. Today, I am going to talk to you about the Monarchs, a type of insect that we all should know from when we were little. I will provide you with a description of their habits, introduce you to live butterflies, and talk about the threats to them and how each one of you can help.
As many of you now, in October, I found a female butterfly with a broken wing. I kept it and cared for it a month and 6 days, much longer then I had anticipated. I became more and more fascinated, so I decided to do a research project about them.
The Monarch Butterfly is probably one of the most well known species of insect found in the U.S., but besides the facts that it flies, hatches from an egg, and that it’s a master of metamorphosis, what do we really know about it? Their complex way of life is known truly by few, and I feel privileged enough to have been able to know much more than I previously have.
In the U. S., Monarchs are known for the striking orange and black patterns on their wings and their use in classrooms to help students better understand metamorphosis and life cycles.
Do You Know What Metamorphosis means?
Metamorphosis is when an animal, like a butterfly, or a frog goes through incredible changes from egg to adult. Monarchs are a great example of this:
A monarch has 4 stages in life: Egg, Caterpillar, Chrysalis, and Adult, and they are all completely different from each other. Four generations of butterflies hatch throughout the year, but only the fourth survive long enough to reproduce. Monarchs begin their life cycle when they hatch from white eggs that are laid on a milkweed plant by the mother. The eggs turn yellow shortly after. The milkweed plant is the only one that the caterpillar eats. This is because when it hatches it ingests the toxins in the plants, which are poisonous to birds, providing an ingenious defense mechanism.
Shortly after it hatches; the brightly striped caterpillar devours its own egg case, and then moves on to the milkweed. It lasts in the caterpillar stage for about 2 weeks.
After 2 weeks, the caterpillar hangs upside down from a silk thread it has made to a branch or plant, and begins to molt. The molt forms a green chrysalis or cocoon where the transition from caterpillar to adult begins. It remains in the pupal stage for another 2 weeks.
After the life changing 2 weeks inside the chrysalis, the crumpled wings and body of a full grown butterfly split open the transparent exoskeleton. The butterfly dries and pumps fluid into the wings for a few hours, and then, spreading its’ stiff new wings, takes flight for the first time.
Like most insects, adult monarchs have 6 legs. They also have 4 wings, 2 large ones called forewings, and 2 smaller ones called hind wings, which are all orange with large black veins streaking across them.
As young, monarchs feed on milkweed leaves, but move on to nectar of milkweed or similar plants when they mature. Like all butterflies, they are important pollinators. To feed, adults uncurl their straw like mouth; called a proboscis, specialized for reaching down the rims of flowers, suck up the nectar. I have observed feeding closely with Flutter, and almost immediately when she was placed on a piece of Butterfly Bush, she uncurled her proboscis and started sticking it down nearly each individual flower, searching for nectar.
Did you know that male monarchs suck up minerals from wet soil and gravel?
This is called Mud-puddling. They gather much needed nutrients, minerals and moisture from the ground or gravel through their proboscis.
Monarchs, because of their bright coloration and poisons, are not preyed upon by many animals but birds such as orioles and jays still eat the body, because it’s far less toxic than the wings, and safer to eat. Mice are able to eat monarchs too, because they can withstand the poisons.
Male monarchs can be distinguished from females by the small, black patch of scales on their hind wings, and the fact that they are slightly larger in size than the females.
Did you know that monarchs migrate?
Each year, millions of American Monarch Butterflies embark on one of earths’ greatest migrations, moving southward to escape the cold and hibernate. Out of all 4 generations of monarchs, the fourth is the only one that migrates. Monarchs east of the Rockies travel some 2,500 miles, and arrive at the Mariposa Monarca Biosphere Reserve in the forested mountains of Mexico. Millions congregate in the rugged forest, completely covering whole trees. They stay in the reserve for 6 – 8 months.
In the spring, the butterflies make their tiring journey back home, and mate and lay eggs. Exhausted from their long flight, the monarchs die shortly after laying their eggs, completing their 4 generation life cycle once again.
Monarchs are a species worth protecting, so by following one of these simple and easy tips, you can help ensure that the monarchs will be here for years to come.
One way you can help is to raise them. When you raise them from caterpillars, you provide protection from predators, and ensure that they will be safe until adulthood. Monarchs are available for sale online, and are very fun to keep as caterpillars.
Another is to plant a butterfly garden, which is not only very attractive but, when you make one, you give monarchs and other butterflies a safe place to lay their eggs and a food source for the young and adults. You can make a small garden in your backyard, but be sure to provide food for the caterpillars and the adults.
A Monarch Waystation is a type of butterfly garden designed especially for the monarchs, which includes their favorite food plants for young and adult monarchs. Seed kits can be found at monarchwatch.org