The monarch butterfly is the king of the insect world. Even though they are small creatures, they do phenomenal things. First they develop from tiny eggs, then become a caterpillar, form a chrysalis, and finally transform into a beautiful butterfly.
Monarchs migrate great distances to overwinter in a temperate climate. Amazingly enough, not one butterfly makes the entire round-trip journey. Winter butterflies are sluggish and do not reproduce. In spring, they return to summer homes and breed along the way. Their offspring return to the starting point.
Danaus plexippus is the scientific name for the monarch butterfly. Related species in the family are found on all continents except the polar regions, wherever milkweed and related plants are found. It also provides an intriguing form of protection, since the milkweed juices it assimilates make it poisonous to predatory birds. Its beautiful orange color serves to teach predators that their intended meal might be toxic. As not all milkweeds produce cardiac glycosides, not all monarch butterflies are poisonous. However, the warning orange hue serves to disguise poisonous from the non-toxic monarch.
- Class: Insecta (insects)
- Order: Lepidoptera (butterflies)
- Family: Danaidae (Milkweed butterfly family)
- Genus: Danaus
- Species: Plexippus
The female Monarch lays about 400 eggs on the underside of a separate leaves of milkweed plants. It takes the little yellow eggs about two weeks to develop. At the end of about two weeks, the eggs start to change colors from yellow to light gray. Eventually, the caterpillar’s head is visible through its eggshell.
A newborn caterpillar is only 2 millimeters long, but eats voraciously. First it eats its own eggshell, then it starts feeding on milkweed. For the first few days, it eats day and night, only stopping to rest between meals. On the first day of life, it consumes its own weight in food.
A caterpillar has ring-like openings called “spiracles”. These are used by the caterpillar for respiration. It also has six legs, and five pairs of large prolegs, which are used to grip. Each end of the body of a caterpillar has one pair of fleshy filaments, their function is unknown. An adult caterpillar’s size is about 2 inches long with a weight of about 2,700 times more than when it hatched.
When the caterpillar is preparing to pupate, it becomes very restless. Some of them leave the milkweed plants that have been their homes since they were eggs. They look for a safe place to undergo their transformation. When the caterpillar finds the right spot for its transformation, it uses a special gland in its mouth to weave a small silk button underneath a twig or leaf. It attaches its tail end to the lump. Then, it hangs upside down in the shape of a “J”. Time passes. Finally, it begins moving, forcing the skin to split open. It wriggles for up to five hours to shed its skin for the fifth and last time. When the old skin is gone, it looks like a giant green water droplet. It has now entered the pupal stage.
The butterfly now looks like a giant green droplet. It is slowly changing shape and color. The outer layer hardens into an elegant emerald case, decorated with golden dots. This is known as “chrysalis,” which is the Greek word for “golden.” Inside this chrysalis, wonderful and inexplicable things are happening.
After about two weeks, you are able to see a butterfly through the transparent chrysalis. When it emerges, the wings are wrinkled and wet, and the butterfly’s abdomen is very large. The newly emerged butterfly clings to the casing of the chrysalis while fluids from its abdomen are pumped into the veins of the wings, expanding them. After a few hours when the wings are dry, and the abdomen reduces to a normal size, the butterfly flies away. The one difference between a male monarch and a female monarch is the scent glands. The male’s scent glands are marked by a spot of dark scales in the center of the hind wings, and females have broader black vein lines.
Monarch Butterflies are able to obtain energy for flying from flowers they visit as they travel northward or southward. This way, they are now ready to migrate in the fall. Monarchs are highly protected by law, Especially in California,. If you molest a Monarch in Pacific Grove, California, you will receive a $500 fine, since they are in danger of extinction.
There are various companies that sell Monarch Butterflies, and other kinds of butterflies for release at weddings and special occasions. This new trend is very popular. So, in the future if you are planning a special celebration and would like to order Monarch Butterflies for release, it is a possibility.
Each autumn, thousands of Monarch Butterflies gather in southern Canada to migrate south. Some of these butterflies travel over 2,900 kilometers, just to overwinter in places such as Michoacan, Mexico in a small town called Angangueo. Other Monarch Butterflies also overwinter in Cuba, and Pacific Grove, as well as Newark, California. In sanctuaries such as the one in Angangueo, Michoacan in Mexico there are millions of these gorgeous butterflies. From morning until about 1 p.m, they are most active. You can see them flying around and almost blocking the sky. You will hear the fascinating sound of their wings flapping. During their long flight, there is a great danger from predators.The orange markings of their wings advertise the unmistakable fact that they might be a dangerous meal.
The early Mayans and Aztecs frequently included butterflies in their cultural arts. The Borboico Codex shows evidence of this popular insect.
The monarch butterfly population is decreasing. In northern Canada, the United States, and in Mexico, various organizations protect monarch butterflies. When monarchs are in the north, they are distributed throughout a large terrain, but when they migrate south, they all stay in the same place. In Mexico, many of the trees that have been homes to these butterflies for years are being cut down. Humans need to be much more appreciative of this regal insect, the beautiful but fragile monarch butterfly.