The Monarch is perhaps the best known and most loved butterfly in North America. This large, orange and black butterfly can be seen across the country in backyards, parks and fields.
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are known for their long-range 3,000 mile mass migration that brings millions of them to California and Mexico each winter.
Monarch Butterfly Facts
The Monarch is a large butterfly, with no tails. It has rich orange coloration with black veins, and white spots on the black wing borders and on the body. Males have small, black scent glands on vein in the center of hind wings. Females have thicker black veins.
Its size is in the 3.5" - 4.0" range.
Milkweed: The Host Plant for the Monarch Butterfly
Monarch butterflies begin life as eggs and hatch as larvae that eat their eggshells and, subsequently, the milkweed plants on which they were placed.
Milkweeds and nectar sources are declining due to development and the widespread use of herbicides in croplands, pastures and roadsides.
Because 90% of all milkweed/Monarch habitats occur within the agricultural landscape, farm practices have the potential to strongly influence Monarch populations. Development (subdivisions, factories, shopping centers, etc.) in the U.S. is consuming habitats for Monarchs and other wildlife at a rate of 6,000 acres per day!
Monarch Butterfly Migration
The Monarch will always return to areas rich in milkweed to lay their eggs upon the plant. The milkweed they feed on as a caterpillar is actually a poisonous toxin and is stored in their bodies.
This is what makes the Monarch butterfly taste so terrible to predators. Monarchs can produce four generations during one summer.
The first three generations will have life spans from 2 - 5 weeks and will continue moving north. During this time they will mate and have the next generation that will continue the northward migration.
The fourth generation is different and can live up to nine months.
The migration progresses at a pace of 25-30 miles per day, although individual butterflies often fly further during periods when conditions are favorable.
Most Monarchs originate from locations more than 1,500 miles from the overwintering sites. The duration of the migration appears to be 2-2.5 months.
Comparison of the Female and Male Monarch Butterflies
Shown below is an identification guide to the female and male Monarch Butterfly.
Males have small, black scent glands on vein in the center of hind wings. Females have thicker black veins.
Comparison of Monarch Butterfly Look-A-Likes: Queen, Viceroy and Soldier
Shown below is an identification guide to butterflies that are similar in coloration and markings to the Monarch. Included are the Viceroy, Queen and Soldier ... the "Royal Court" of butterflies!
Is It a Monarch, Queen or Black Swallowtail Caterpillar?
The caterpillars of the Monarch, Queen and Black Swallowtail all feature white, yellow and black markings. But which one are you seeing? Check the images below for the differences between the three caterpillars.
Monarch Butterfly Photos
Male Monarch Butterfly feeding on Lantana
Monarch Butterfly feeding on milkweed ... notice the mature seed pod on the right
Male (l) and female (r) Monarch Butterflies on a pink Zinnia
Monarch Butterfly feeding on milkweed (10/20/2013)
Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle
|Egg stage||Generally 4 to 6 days|
|Caterpillar (larval) stage||2 to 3 weeks|
|Chrysalis (pupal) stage||5 to 15 days|
|Adult butterfly stage||2 to 5 weeks for the summer generations, but the over-wintering generation in Mexico can live several months|
Monarch Butterfly egg carefully laid in the heart of a Milkweed plant
Monarch Butterfly eggs on Milkweed leaves
Monarch Butterfly caterpillar ... right after hatching, eating its egg casing
Monarch Butterfly caterpillar ... 7 days from egg laying ... size compared to a straight pin
Monarch Butterfly caterpillars ... nearing maturity
A mature Monarch Butterfly caterpillar
roaming on Zinnias, looking for the perfect place to assume the "J" Position
Monarch caterpillar in the "J" position, tail attached to a Milkweed leaf
Monarch caterpillar relaxing out of the "J" position, body stretched, feelers limp
Monarch caterpillar entering the chrysalis ... it's a quick transformation!
Monarch caterpillar with its chrysalis nearly complete ... the remaining "skin" will soon be dropped
Monarch Butterfly caterpillar in its chrysalis ... carefully blending with nature!
Monarch Butterfly chrysalis ... on a brick wall !
Monarch Butterfly chrysalis ... on the slick metallic surface of a BBQ grill ...
this one hatched very successfully into a beautiful Monarch several days later
Monarch chrysalis ... dark and clear, with the butterfly ready to emerge
A beautiful new Monarch Butterfly ... minutes after eclosing from 10 days in its chrysalis
Monarch Project at Waystation 8560: September-October 2014
At the end of 2013, we harvested as many seeds as we could from our mature Milkweed plants. In the spring of 2014, we started three flats of these seeds in small peat pots.
Once the seedlings were about 3" in height, they were transplanted across our property, ten "hills" of several plants per hill. Other 2013 seeds were distributed to butterfly-friendly family members and friends.
They grew nicely, eventually up to over 4 feet in height. But in the spring we only saw a couple of Monarchs, headed northeast. And, sadly, we saw none during the summer. Then, on September 3, we were surprised to see a female Monarch outside our window. She remained for three days, laying eggs on all of the Milkweed across the landscape.
We took in 47 eggs to help insure success of this Monarch. Eventually, 44 hatched in our "incubator" and transformed successfully into beautiful Monarchs which we released in early October. Many other eggs remained in the landscape, hatched, and grew into mature caterpillars. One attached to a brick wall, one to a metallic BBQ pit (see photos above) ... while we were leery of these locations, both turned out to be successful and produced large Monarchs!
It was indeed a family affair! It took five of us, from three family generations, to make this happen. It was a lot of work to keep the incubator clean and supplied with fresh Milkweed. And we had to pay meticulous attention to each chrysalis as it was formed, as the leaves quickly wilted and were are risk to falling. So each was pinned to the top of the incubator where they could hang safely in a natural, vertical orientation. And of course we had to be wary of the Milkweed itself, and keeping its "milk" off our hands and away from our eyes.
While labor intensive, it was a great learning experience for all involved. Plus, we hope in a small way to have helped stabilize and grow the threatened Monarch population.
Our Monarch Butterfly "incubator" ... where 44 butterflies were hatched
We cleaned the incubator daily, and kept a fresh supply of Milkweed for the caterpillars. At the bottom of the incubator we had brown paper bags. One day we were surprised to find four perfect chrysalis attached underneath the bag, each lined up perfectly with the next. We carefully cut the paper, hung it, and all four hatched into beautiful Monarchs!
New Monarch Butterflies ready to fly!
A perfect new male Monarch Butterfly just eclosed and ready to fly south in autumn!
Monarch Butterfly Tagging
MonarchWatch.org tags and tagging data sheets
Studies continue yearly on the migration patterns of Monarch butterflies. One research tool is tagging, used to associate the location of capture with the point of recovery for each butterfly. The data from these recaptures are used to determine the pathways taken by migrating monarchs, the influence of weather on the migration, the survival rate of the monarchs, etc.
MonarchWatch.org operates a tagging system in which each tagged butterfly has a tag code (three letters and three numbers). The tags are printed with waterproof ink on polypropylene sheets that have special 3M adhesive on the back. The printed tags are placed on a backing from which they can be easily removed. They are organized in groups of 25 consecutive numbers/tags per sheet.
Shown below are some of the tags our enthusiastic young group placed on Monarch caterpillars in October of 2015.
Carefully placing a Monarch Watch tag on a Monarch Butterfly
Monarch Watch tag in place on a Monarch Butterfly
Growing Milkweed at Home
Each spring we start growing new Milkweed plants from seeds harvested from the previous year. They spout consistently and grow quickly, and are ready for transplanting in about a month. And if the winter is mild, young plants will come up from the roots of frozen Milkweeds.
Milkweed planted from seed
Milkweed growing from the roots of plants frozen during the winter
Monarch Waystations are places that provide resources necessary for monarchs to produce successive generations and sustain their migration. A waystation can be anywhere ... a home backyard, park, school or elsewhere.
Without milkweeds throughout their spring and summer breeding areas in North America, Monarchs would not be able to produce the successive generations that culminate in the migration each fall. By creating a Monarch Waystation you can assist in Monarch conservation and help the preservation of the species.
We are proud to be certified as Monarch Waystation 8560