Monarchs Are Mythical and Mysterious

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.

Monarch caterpillar
Found this guy, then I lost him.
Monarch caterpillar Sue Berk Koch
Lost this guy too.

MONARCHS ARE MYTHICAL AND MYSTERIOUS.... YET THEY NEEDED ME

Monarch on milkweed
Monarch on my swamp milkweed

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:

ONLY FIVE PERCENT OF MONARCH EGGS SURVIVE TO BECOME BUTTERFLIES

ANOTHER WAY OF LOOKING AT IT : 95% MONARCH MORTALITY RATE

One or two out of 100 eggs laid, survive!

They need Louie and me to save them!

Louie and monarch caterpillar
Saving in action

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. 

Ozzie eats insects
Ozzie the predator

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. 

Adorable toad predator on milkweed
Adorable toad, but they eat caterpillars.

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. 

Man is an enemy of monarchs
Man's got to eat, but we can postpone mowing down the fields in the fall!

MONARCHS AND MILKWEED : A SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP

 Monarchs and milkweed have a close association! It’s also considered a symbiotic relationship. Milkweed is poisonous.  Most insects and birds avoid milkweed and caterpillars. (But not all, of course.)

WHAT DO MONARCH CATERPILLARS EAT?

Hint: They only eat one specific leaf.

MILKWEED!

Milkweed is the ONLY food that monarch caterpillars eat.

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. 

Milkweed madness Susan Berk Koch
Milkweed madness!

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.

Monarch eggs on milkweed
Monarch eggs are small!

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.

Monarch eggs hatching
Eggs about to hatch!

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. 

Poor caterpillars! 

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!

CATERPILLARS MOLT!

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.

Resting cat before a molt
Monarch caterpillar eating his molt
Eating his molt
Two monarch caterpillars from eggs
Two cats, obviously

After 10-12 days and five molts, the caterpillar has enough energy stored.  

Time to form a chrysalis! Talk about mythical and mysterious.  

Fat healthy instar five
Fat, healthy instar five!

Butterflies do NOT form a cocoon

A cocoon is a silk casing that moth larvae form around themselves.

Butterflies form a chrysalis

A chrysalis is opaque, hard, and shell-like

CHRYSALIS FORMATION

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. 

About to form chrysalis
Look closely and you'll see the silk button

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.

 

Not the best photo, but I didn't want to disturb her!

INSIDE THE CHRYSALIS

This part of the monarch life cycle gets the prize for mythical and mysterious.

Partially formed chrysalis
Forming a chrysalis!
Chrysalis
Newly formed chrysalis..it will grown shiny and hard
This chrysalis is only an inch long!
Inside, the cat will miraculously transform into a butterfly.
The cat's mouth parts are reconstructed so they can sip nectar.
No more solid food, ever again. This straw-like tongue is called a proboscis.
The butterfly will have three pair of legs, like all insects
Caterpillars have eight legs.
Butterfly eyesight will dramatically improve!
If you'd like to read more about how butterflies see the world, click on the link!
Click Here
Reproductive organs form
These were absent in the caterpillar stage
Previous
Next

ECLOSING!

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.

Save the caterpillars
Don't blame me

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.

This lasts 3-5 days.

Newborn cat often eats their shell casing.

This is the caterpillar stage. (caterpillar sounds better than larva!)

This is when the caterpillar forms its chrysalis.

A lot is going on inside this hard shell! In 10 days, a butterfly will emerge. This is called eclosing, and takes about five seconds!

It really is that fast, believe me. I missed my first girl eclosing. Okay, I said that already…

 

Monarch Life Cycle
courtesy butterfly lady

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

The last generation of the season (depends on your latitude as to when that is!) the monarchs migrate to Mexico, where they spend the winter. 

Fast facts about the migration  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!

Butterfly weed
Butterfly weed is the orange flower. Nice pop of color and great for monarchs and other butterflies alike!

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!)

First male monarch from egg
My only boy this summer.
Last lovely monarch baby girl
One of my girls!
First female monarch from egg on Rose of Sharon
Another of my girls!

I started raising caterpillars quite late in the season. I proudly helped four eggs become butterflies. (Three girls and a boy!)

HUZZAH!

People get VERY good at it…

Monarch Madness
Monarch Madness!

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!

Louie wants to help raise monarchs
I have vast knowledge and am willing to share
Monarchs are mythical and mysterious
One of my girls! Far more cooperative with the camera than many humans! (see below)
Happy child with his dog
Nicely smiling for the camera
Teenagers smiling nicely for the camera
Cooperating with lovely smiles
Happy cooperating teenagers
Happily enjoying a family outing

Kidding aside,  I’m sure you’ll agree; monarchs are mythical and mysterious!

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57 thoughts on “Monarchs Are Mythical and Mysterious”

  1. I love butterflies and found this blog so very interesting . Even after going to the Butterfly House here in St.Louis I did not got as much info about butterflies and their lives as I did from your blog. Wish I had the garden to raise Monarchs!!

    Reply
    • The migration generation lives for about nine months, down in Mexico and including the migration to and from. So they have about three months to reproduce. I’m speaking from southern Wisconsin, so our monarchs need leave before the third week in September. Southern states, the migration begins later. Cities in, say Texas, monarchs may not leave until late October. There are more generations to keep reproducing.
      Here’s a cool web page that will tell you when the monarchs migrate, by latitude. (Maybe I should add it to the post) https://monarchwatch.org/tagmig/peak.html

      The females lay 100-300 eggs in their lifetime. So we need a lot of monarch mamas, because of the eggs’ low survival rate! And a lot of milkweed, to lay the eggs. Pollinators, to keep them well fed. Do you still have monarchs in your area?

      Reply
  2. A very interesting and fact filled post. I must admit that I knew virtually about monarchs before reading this post (other than they are mythical and mysterious). I need to plant milkweed for sure. Thanks for this,

    Reply
  3. We don’t have any Monarchs in our garden but we are plagued by Cabbage Whites whose caterpillars eat all my broccoli 🙁 But we also have some other varieties too, which are very pretty to look at and love our buddleias. Fascinating post, Sue, thank you!

    Reply
    • Oh no, your broccoli? I assume you’ve covered it with mesh to try to stop them? Leave them one plant? Swallowtails eat parsley, but it’s tougher to share the broccoli. At least monarchs eat leaves that we don’t. Thanks, Lisa!

      Reply
  4. I really enjoyed reading this post! It’s quite fascinating to see how quickly they change. I have always planted plants which are butterfly and hummingbird friendly. We all need to take responsibility to protect butterflies!

    Reply
  5. Cool post!! I love Monarchs. We have been to the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove which is on their yearly migration path. It’s amazing. Now I need to figure out if milkweed will grow here .

    Reply
  6. I absolutely love this Susan! I’ve always had a thing for insects, ever since I was a little girl. In fact, I worked in an entomology lab in college for 3+ years. There I researched the hormonal control metamorphosis in the manduca sexta (tobacco hornworm, which becomes a moth). Your pictures are beautiful. I hope to see the monarch migration down in mexican someday. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Interesting! I think the hornworm is what got to our tomato plants one year. I see that they are parasitized by wasps, which is gross, but I’m sure the tobacco farmers don’t mind. Metamorphosis is intriguing. (I like embryo, too) You’re fortunate that you had a chance to research it. Thanks so much!

      Reply
  7. I’ve heard of people doing this. It’s so cool to watch the transformation! Thanks for sharing all the resources about it. I would love to try it out sometime!

    Reply
  8. Exceptional photos and great information. As much as I’ve studied the butterfly’s life cycle, I am still amazed by it. I have a luna moth cocoon inside my house and hope it will emerge soon.

    Reply
  9. Super work here! I thank you for all the hours (days) it took to produce this post.

    We have milkweed everywhere! Its sap is somewhat toxic to our epidermis, I believe. All the more reason not to pull it and leave it to spread.

    Reply
  10. Wow this is incredible and mysterious! I remember my metamorphosis lessons before but this is up close and personal! Very clear photos. And I understand it more now. lol. Beautiful!

    Reply
  11. It is so cool to see how butterflies transformed from caterpillars. So cool to learn about the science of their whole genetic sequence breaking down and transforming too. It is interesting to learn its connection with milkweed flowers too. Thanks for sharing!

    Nancy ✨ exquisitely.me

    Reply
    • I find the monarch metamorphosis and their milkweed connection cool, too. Scientists are still studying migration, trying to answer the whys behind how it works. Lots of mysteries out there. Thanks so much, Nancy!

      Reply

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Susan Berk Koch
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