Monday, August 19, 2013

King of the butterflies

Monarch butterfly. Photo credit: Susan Shafer, NYSDEC
With summer 2013 winding down, we can expect to see our local King of the Butterflies soon appearing. The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is a large, striking insect belonging to the Lepidoptera family: butterflies and moths. The bold colors of black and orange on The King’s wings warn predators that they are NOT a tasty snack. Monarch butterfly caterpillars spend all of their lives on milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.), from egg to finally becoming a butterfly months later. Both caterpillar and butterfly are an easy identification and a common sight during our New York summers.

Common milkweed as
found in Upstate, NY.
Top picture: milkweed in bloom, July 2013.
Bottom picture: adult plant in the
month of August 2013.
(Click to enlarge)
Perhaps what monarch’s are best known for is the epic migration the make every year from as far north, as parts of Canada, to their wintering grounds in Mexico. This movement isn’t true migration though, if you define migration as a single-generation movement from point A to B and back to A. What the monarchs do is just as, or more miraculous than single generation migration. For example: whereas salmon are somehow able to detect and return to their natal waters to spawn themselves after thousands of miles and years of separation from their hatching grounds, several generations of monarchs are able to return to their grand or great-grandparents winter or summer grounds. The butterflies that will be soon hatching in our backyards will be making their way south. The extreme distance these small and delicate creatures are programmed to make, is soon their downfall. Perhaps somewhere south of NY, in a month or two, our butterflies will lay eggs, and then die. Their offspring will hatch, eat and grow, and they will undergo metamorphosis into butterflies. The journey then continues to Mexico, and then back again early next spring. In essence, generations of monarch butterflies leapfrog from the north to the south and back again making an amazing journey over thousands of miles.

I have fond memories, as a child, in mid-late August, looking on the undersides of milkweed leaves in search of a fat, striped monarch caterpillar. Many times my sister and I were fortunate on our hunts and came home to mom with stems of dripping, sticky milkweed plant, carefully cradling our caterpillars. Mom would always find an empty critter tank or Mason jar, and in they’d go.

A 5 year old Alyssa examines 
a freshly hatched monarch butterfly. 
Photo credit: Donna Johnson

We would check every day to see what “our” caterpillars were doing, and then one day, the change had been made. From a caterpillar, into a strange chrysalis (which is like a cocoon, but specific to a butterfly) that is glossy, bright green, and edged with tiny dots of gold. The caterpillar remains in his or her tiny little capsule for up to 2 weeks, undergoing an amazing change. Then one day, the chrysalis becomes clear, and the changed butterfly is revealed. The emerging and drying process then only takes about an hour, and then the butterfly is off and ready to mate, lay eggs, and start this whole process over again.

The next time you see a monarch butterfly fluttering around a meadow or resting in your garden, think of the journey this tiny, delicate creature has in store for it, and the journey it’s ancestors have already made many times before.

For more information about the monarch butterfly, please visit the NYSDEC’s Watchable Wildlife webpage about monarchs!

1 comment:

  1. Love the photo, at your age then you loved the animal life so much. Here in NZ they hibernate below a huge stand of pine trees in the Bay of Plenty, in the winter, and probably other places I don't know about, and lately we see them in what I call " out of season". Even as an adult, I am fascinated by their life cycle, and do like to see the butterfly emerge, gently exercise those damp wings, and finally flutter away. Nature in all its wonderfulness!! Thanks for another lovely post. Greetings from Jean.


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