Monarch Butterflies

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The monarch butterfly can fly as far as 3,000 miles during migration, and they are the only butterfly in the world to make this type of migration. What’s more amazing is that it’s not the same butterflies making this journey each year. It’s their offspring!

The life of monarch butterflies starts as eggs on milkweed plants. The eggs hatch in about 4 days. Once they hatch, they are called larva or caterpillars. They stay in this stage for around 2 weeks and pretty much just eat and eat and eat. By eating the milkweed plant they make themselves toxic to predators, and thus less likely to be eaten. 

When the caterpillar is done growing, it will attach itself to a stem or leaf and transform into a chrysalis. This is when most people say, “It’s in its cocoon”. The next 10 days are very busy for caterpillars, this is when they are going through metamorphosis and actually changing into a butterfly! When the monarch emerges, it begins feeding on flowers, and laying eggs, and just enjoys the next few weeks of its life. Yup, you read right, just a few weeks! They only live 2-6 weeks. 

In early spring from February - March, the eggs hatched are known as first generation monarchs. They lay the eggs of generation number two. The second generation of monarchs is born in May - June, and the third generation will be born in July - August. All of these monarchs will go through exactly the same life cycle as the first generation, dying 2-6 weeks after it becomes a full-grown butterfly.

The life cycle of fourth generation monarchs is different than the first three generations. (Hint: this is where migration comes in.)The fourth generation is born in September - October and goes through exactly the same life cycle as the other generations except, they don’t die in a few weeks. Yay! This generation of monarchs will actually live for 6-8 months. However they can't do it here because of our cold winters. This generation migrates south to Mexico. Now remember, these are butterflies that have just gone through metamorphosis. They have never been anywhere other than on a flower much less Mexico! But they find their way and they stay there until spring. Then they migrate back north to lay eggs, and the whole process begins again. 

As with many animals in our world today, the monarch population is in decline. The habitat they depend on in winter months is being cut-down. The number of milkweed plants they need to feed on during the growing stages of their life cycle are fewer and fewer. However, there are things we can do to help and here is a short list:

  • Plant milkweed in your garden. Even just one plant can feed several monarchs, and you’ll get to watch them grow through their life cycle!  
  • Plant a garden specifically for butterflies. These type of gardens include flowers that bloom from spring until fall so it will help migrating and breeding monarchs. These gardens can also include areas for butterflies to drink and to bask in. Here is a sheet that can help you get started. 
  • Encourage others to grow milkweed or to not mow down milkweed they may already have growing on their land.   
  • When buying lumber, look for the Forest Stewardship Certified seal. This means the lumber was harvested in an ecologically responsible way and was not harvested in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (a location in Mexico set aside as a wintering location for monarchs).    




Monarch facts:

  • The male monarchs have distinct black dots on their lower wings. These spots are absent on Females. 
  • On average a monarch weighs about ½ a gram.  
  • Stickers are used to “tag” monarchs and collect data. The stickers are less than 1 square centimeter so they don’t interfere with the flight of the butterflies. 
  • Females lay one egg at a time, but will lay several in one day. 
  • Females seem to lay fewer eggs in very hot and dry years. 
  • Monarchs store a poison called cardiac glycosides that they gets from the milkweed they eat. This protects them from most predators. 
  • There are a few insects such as stink bugs and wasps that eat monarchs. Scientist aren’t sure exactly how they deal with the poison. 
  • Monarchs can fly up to 3,000 miles during migration.