Monarch Butterfly Facts
The monarch butterfly is one of the most recognizable insects in the United States. After its egg stage, when still in the larvae stage (caterpillar), its main food source is milkweed, which plays a crucial part in its survival. Before it blossoms into a butterfly, it is a larvae that consumes the milkweed. Later on in development, the milkweed becomes a defense mechanism for the adult butterfly because predators find its taste unbearable. During the lifetime of a monarch butterfly, they can produce up to four generations of offspring in one season. Once summer is over and cold weather begins to approach, the surviving generation of monarch butterflies migrate to Southern California or Mexico depending on the location of their regular habitat.
Monarch Butterfly Habitat
Monarchs change their habitat based on the climate. During the warm months, they can be found wherever there may be milkweed; this is where they lay their eggs. As stated above, milkweed is also the food source for monarchs as caterpillars, so they remain close to their food source throughout these stages.
As the temperature begins to get colder, monarchs are forced to migrate to the southern part of the country where it is warmer. Monarchs cannot survive in freezing temperatures, therefore they are forced to move regularly.
Monarch Butterfly Migration
Unlike other insects, monarch butterflies can’t survive a long, cold winter in northern climates as larvae or pupa. In the months leading to winter, monarch butterflies take cues from the environment and begin their migratory journey.
Monarch butterflies west of the Rocky Mountains migrate to small groves of trees along the coast of Southern California near Santa Cruz and San Diego. Monarch butterflies living east of the Rocky Mountains also fly south for the winter. Monarchs from as far up as a Canada and the Northeastern United States fly to southern states like Louisiana, Georgia, and Florida, and some fly even further south to forests in the Sierra Madre Mountains of central Mexico. Monarch butterflies are the only insect to make annual two-way migrations similar to birds. Even more amazing is that they can travel up to 3,000 miles each way.
Monarch Butterfly Lifecycle
Monarch butterfly eggs are laid singly on milkweed plants. The female monarch lays one egg at a time, with approximately 500 eggs laid during the three-to-six-week cycle. Monarch butterfly eggs are about the size of a pinhead and are off-white to yellow in color. It takes about three to eight days for the eggs to hatch into their larva from or otherwise known as a caterpillar.
Once hatched, the caterpillar goes through five stages of molting. After every molting process, the caterpillar gets bigger in size until the fifth and final stage. Before the next step of the process, caterpillars must eat milkweed to gain mass and to protect themselves later on in their lives against predators. The mass is stored as fat and helps the caterpillar get through the metamorphosis process. The stage of metamorphosis takes a lot of energy, so the caterpillar must eat as much as it can and store fat to get through the process.
The next stage is the pupa or chrysalis stage. In this phase, the larva stops feeding, leaves the plant where it has remained since egg stage and searches for an appropriate place to become a chrysalis. It empties its intestines and spins a small pillow beneath a branch from which it hangs from the back of its abdomen. The larva sheds for the last time and produces a silky thread to form the pupa that will encase and protect it. Within an hour, it turns into a yellow-green chrysalis, and gradually changes, hardening and turning blueish-green with gold and black spots. After eight to ten days, the chrysalis is translucent, making it possible to see the adult butterfly's wings.
Finally, after two to three weeks, the adult butterfly emerges from the cocoon showing the final stage of metamorphosis. Once conditions are permitted, the butterfly spreads its wings to fly and find sources of nectar to feed on.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long do Monarch butterflies live?
The lifespan of a monarch varies. In captivity, one can last anywhere from two weeks to six. Other monarchs that migrate, live longer and can have a lifespan of a couple months. Although they live longer, travel takes a toll on them along with the many risks that come with migrating.
How fast do Monarchs fly?
Monarchs are capable of flying at a rate of 5 meters per second during migration season, an equivalent of 12 miles per hour.
Can you tell the difference between male and female monarch butterflies?
Yes. Female monarchs have a brighter shade of orange on their wings in comparison to male monarchs, who have a darker shade of orange. Male monarch butterflies also have thinner streaks of black going through their hind legs, along with identifying black spots, where the females is thicker and does not have spots at all.
Where does the Monarch Butterfly get its name from?
Settlers from England and the Netherlands were enamored by the sight of the butterfly and decided to name it after the king or “monarch”. It was essentially named after King William III.
Are monarch butterflies poisonous to humans?
Monarch butterflies are beautiful but deadly. They consume milkweed which humans can consume in small portions but still, can be considered toxic if consumed through a monarch butterfly. As a caterpillar the larvae consumes milkweed and as the organism grows, it becomes more and more toxic to predators including humans. But, as long as you don't ingest a Monarch Butterfly, you have nothing to worry about.