Monarchs are mythical and mysterious. I wanted more butterflies in our garden. I love planting native flowers, trees and bushes. For those reasons, I planted milkweed. My plan worked. The milkweed took off! We had many monarchs in our yard!
I started finding caterpillars. Then they’d disappear. It worried me. Never mind that fossil records indicate that these delicate creatures have been on our planet for 200 million years. They needed me to survive! Little did I know what I was in for.
MONARCHS ARE MYTHICAL AND MYSTERIOUS.... YET THEY NEEDED ME
You’re undoubtedly familiar with the iconic orange and black of the monarch butterfly. These lovely lepidoptera are classified as insects. They have amazing adaptations, a unique life cycle, and kick butt with their migration patterns, some flying as far as 2500 miles to reach the remote treetops of Mexico. But they needed me to save them.
Joking aside, I learned a sobering fact:
They did need Louie and me to save them!
We brought a few caterpillars inside. I fed them with milkweed. There was a learning curve. (boo)
Monarch eggs and caterpillars have enemies.
PREDATORS AND PARASITES
Mother nature is not kind to eggs and caterpillars. Monarchs face many predators and parasites.
Tachnid flies lay eggs inside caterpillars, which is pretty gross and horrible when they hatch. (Like that old move Alien)
Wasps and ants eat them.
Spiders eat them.
Don’t even get me started on the OE spores. (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha is a protozoan parasite that infects the Monarch world-wide) Their life cycle has synced to a monarch life cycle.
This is an example of symbiosis, with the relationship harming one of the pair involved.
This is Ozzie on the left, our bearded dragon. Not an alien or protozoan parasite. He is a predator and eats insects.
He also likes blueberries and sweet potatoes, which I’m sure bearded dragons find regularly in their indigenous habitat in the Australian Outback.
This is as close as I felt like going w/ photos of predators for this post.
And there’s man, too. Eggs and caterpillars are extremely sensitive to pesticides, even to flea and tick medicine on your pet. Not to mention mowing down milkweed too soon, before all the caterpillars are done eating, completing their metamorphosis, and the butterflies are ready to fly south.
MONARCHS AND MILKWEED : A SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP
The milkweed flowers are great for all pollinators, though! Only the leaves are poisonous.
Planting milkweed will help not only monarchs, but all our pollinators.
HUNTING FOR EGGS
It took me a few days to figure out how to even find eggs. It sounds easy but it wasn’t, not at first. The mama monarch usually lays eggs on the underside of the leaf. It’s tricky to carefully tilt the stalk over and look for them.
There are three eggs on the right. Can you find them? Okay, of course you can but my point is that they are tiny!
By the way, scientific name for monarch butterflies is Danaus Plexippus.
EGGS HATCH IN 3-5 DAYS
In 3-5 days, the eggs hatch! I put mine on a paper towel in a covered container, opening it a few times a day for fresh air. (It’s not like they’re going to run away or suffocate in minutes.) In the photo below, the black spots are the caterpillars’ heads.
Video below of a tiny caterpillar. (Instar one, which means just born) This cat is so small, it’s hard to believe any of them survive.
The first thing they do is eat their shell. Mother Nature is so clever. They are born blind and barely know day from night.
The caterpillars eat and eat and eat, hence becoming poisonous themselves, like the milkweed. Most predators avoid them! Sadly, predators need to take a taste before they learn.
After some trial and error, my eggs hatched and the cats kept eating!
I washed and washed the leaves and they ate and ate and ate. I was a caterpillar slave!
I’ve always found animals that molting skin all at once simultaneously disgusting and intriguing. This is part of the monarch mystique.
Caterpillars shed their skin every few days. It takes 10-12 days of constant eating, with five molts to get from instar one to instar five, which means they are ready to form their chrysalis. And based on the numbering system– Instar one to instar five–you can guess that there are five molts.
After 10-12 days and five molts, the caterpillar has enough energy stored.
Time to form a chrysalis! Talk about mythical and mysterious.
The caterpillar finds a safe location and hangs by forming a strong silk button.
Okay, in my dining room, they were safe no matter what but you get the idea!
It has a huge job ahead. They need to actually split their backs open and shed their skin for the last time. But this time is different. Under their skin is a jade green casing. This is the chrysalis.
On the right in the foreground, you can see a partially formed chrysalis. The black is her skin, which falls off.
Instar five cats can crawl over 30 feet to find the right spot to pupate.
They hang for about 24 hours. When they begin to curl upwards and form a J shape, the next stage is about to begin.
You can see the caterpillar above was forming that same J shape.
INSIDE THE CHRYSALIS
This part of the monarch life cycle gets the prize for mythical and mysterious.
In 10 days, a butterfly emerges. It takes about five seconds. Believe me! I missed my first girl eclosing! (emerging from the chrysalis)
When the chrysalis becomes transparent and you can see the wings, you know it’s time!
So what did I do? Decide I had time to take Louie for a walk.
It takes four hours for the new butterfly wings to dry. They are exceptionally vulnerable to predators at this time, as you can imagine!
They don’t eat for 24 hours so if the weather isn’t optimal, one can hold off releasing them!
Then they can be released and are able to fly! ! A newly emerged Monarch uses its straw-like tongue, called a proboscis, to sip nectar. I managed to get a video. (see below)
MONARCH LIFE CYCLE TIMELINE = METAMORPHOSIS
The monarch life cycle is technically called metamorphosis. There are four stages, which I’m sure you’ve already surmised! But this is a science blog so I’m going to summarize here.
It takes 28-32 days to complete the stages for an egg to become a butterfly!
Factors such as heat, sunlight, humidity all play a part.
Monarchs only live about two weeks. In five days they are sexually mature. They mate. Females lay over 100-300 eggs in their lifetimes.
MONARCH MIGRATION : THE SUPER GENERATION
They need to expend their energy on flight! They fly up to FIFTY miles a day.
Obviously, to make the trip to Mexico. Monarchs from Canada fly 2500-3000 miles!
No reproducing in Mexico. They return to the places they left and mate in spring.
MONARCH POPULATIONS ARE DWINDLING
Scientists study this, spend time tagging and counting. Populations are dwindling. Maybe you don’t want to raise caterpillars, but you can help monarch populations!
Plant milkweed! This provides monarchs with more options for a critically needed habitat. This is huge and will help population decline.
There are many pretty varieties of milkweed. Butterfly weed counts, too! And plant pollinator plants, so they have readily available food!
Butterflies are cold-blooded. They need flowers in the sun!
HOW TO TELL MALES FROM FEMALES
It’s possible to tell a male from female after they form their chrysalis, but I didn’t want to bother them. Besides, it’s fun to have the surprise!
Males monarchs have two dots on their wings. Females do not. (see pics below!)
I started raising caterpillars quite late in the season. I proudly helped four eggs become butterflies. (Three girls and a boy!)
People get VERY good at it…
If you want to give this a go next spring, please feel free to contact me! I have many resources and I’m happy provide links.
Louie and I can help you achieve success!
Kidding aside, I’m sure you’ll agree; monarchs are mythical and mysterious!