Monarch Butterflies

June 22, 2014

 Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is a milkweed butterfly in the family Nymphalidae. They are the most beautiful of all butterflies and some say are considered the “king” of the butterflies hence the name “monarch”. The monarch butterfly is resident in the Canary Islands, the Azores, North America, Maderia and are occasional migrant in Western Europe.

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The monarch butterfly’s wingspan ranges from 3 1/2 to 4 inches and they are easily recognizable by their orange and black pattern wings. Males are slightly larger than the females; the females have darker veins on their wings while the males have a spot called the androconium in the center of each hind wing. The caterpillar of the monarch is banded in yellow, black and white stripes and the eggs are creamy white which would later turn pale yellow.

The migration pattern of the monarch butterfly is famous; they go southward late summer/autumn from the United States and southern Canada to Mexico and coastal California and return northward in spring. Their migration route was discovered after a 38 year search entomologists Fred and Norah Urquhart.

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The monarch can be found in various habitats including meadows, fields, gardens and trees. Adult monarchs consume nectars from a wide range of sources including wild carrot, teasel, horseweed, lilac, clover, red clover and tall ironweed. The larvae however only eat milkweed.

The monarch goes through four lifecycles and four generations in one year. The cycle of the monarch butterfly consists of the egg, the larvae (caterpillar), the pupa (chrysalis), and the adult butterfly.  In February or March, the hibernating monarch emerges from hibernation to look for mates. The courtship has two stages, the aerial and the ground phase. In the aerial phase the male pursues and takes down a female monarch, copulation occurs during the ground phase where the male and female stay attached for 60 seconds.

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The eggs are laid by the females in the March and April onto leaves of milkweed plants. Four days later the eggs hatch into larvae or caterpillars. The caterpillars eat their egg cases and then feed on milkweed to grow. The caterpillar will be fully grown after two weeks, starting the pupa or chrysalis stage where the caterpillar would spin a silk pad on a twig and attach itself to it. Although it may look like nothing is happening during this stage, on the inside a lot of changes are taking place. The old body parts of the caterpillar are undergoing a transformation called metamorphosis. Two weeks after the pupal stage an adult butterfly emerges eating flowers and enjoying its short lifespan. This would be the first generation of monarch butterflies for the year.

The second generation of monarch are born in May and June they go through the same stages as the first generation dying out two to six weeks after becoming a mature monarch. The third generation will be born July and August and the fourth will be born in September and October.

Now there’s a slight difference with the fourth generation, they still go through all the stages but they don’t die out immediately instead they migrate to warmer areas and will live for another six to eight months to start the cycle again.

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