Monarchs in Your Yard and Abroad
Few creatures in nature evoke such delight as the Monarch Butterfly, a true icon of conservation and natural heritage in our state. 2020’s second generation of Danaus plexippus recently emerged as adult butterflies here in Georgia and are on their way north. Most famous for their migration to Mexico, there’s much more to Monarchs and they are most worthy of our curiosity!
Laid in the hundreds by one female, Monarchs begin their lives in eggs on the underside of Milkweed leaves. Milkweed (Asclepias sps.) is the larval host plant of the Monarch and there are around 30 species that they depend on throughout the U.S.. Eating their egg casing as they emerge, young caterpillars turn to feed on the leaves which they were hidden. The larval form of the Monarch, throughout a two-week period, will molt five times with each stage being called an instar. From the first instar to the final instar, the Monarch caterpillar can grow up to 3,000 times its original body size.
3rd instar on A. incarnata
4th instar on A. incarnata
When the time is right, the caterpillar will crawl off the milkweed and onto another nearby plant. Hanging itself upside down in what is known as the “Hanging J” , he or she attaches its posterior to a wad of silk placed on a branch or leaf. From there it splits its skin, molting for the last time and forming the chrysalis. Many Lepidoptera experts have been known to pull their hair out if you call a butterfly’s pupa a cocoon: a name reserved for only moths! At this point, the chrysalis will hang for 8-10 days at which point the emerald green casing will turn clear revealing the newly formed Monarch.
5th instar and Flying J
Chrysalis day 6
Once free of its chrysalis, the newly formed butterfly will fly north if within the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd generation, looking for nectar, other monarchs, and milkweed along the way. If within the 4th generation of Monarchs born that year, they will fly from the northern U.S. and Canada all the way to the state of Michoacan, Mexico. Michoacan is known for its extant volcanic mountains which are dominated by Oyamel Fir, the trees on which the Monarchs prefer to overwinter. High in the volcanic mountains, at around 8,000 to 10,000 feet, the butterflies cluster together on the Oyamel trees to stay warm, weighing the branches down to the point that some actually break! As the days warm and grow longer, the Monarchs come out of what is known as “Reproductive Diapause”, mating as they fly north to lay the new year’s 1st geration. One very interesting fact about the migratory generation is that they may live up to 9 months while other generations only live around 6 weeks!
Chrysalis 12 Hours Before Emergence
Adult Monarch 30 Minutes after Emergence
Michoacan culture holds the belief that returning Monarch Butterflies are the souls their passed relatives come back home. Their return migration to Michoacan coincides with la Dia de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead on November 1st and 2nd! Monarchs have quite an amazing tale to tell and are also important to the larger ecosystem due to their aid in native plant pollination. Unfortunately because of milkweed habitat loss in the U.S. and illegal timber logging in their winter colonies, Monarchs face an uncertain future. There are things you can do to help however!
We’ve talked about Monarchs abroad so now let’s talk about them in your yard!
The best thing you, your family, your neighbors, and community can do is to plant milkweeds for female Danus plexipus to lay their eggs on. Now you shouldn’t just plant any Milkweed sold at the store because many wholesale growers sell non-native milkweeds which could do more harm than good! There are numerous Asclepias species in Georgia but only a handful will be available for you to purchase and plant in your yard. The National Wildlife Federation suggests these five species (the first two being the easiest to find) of Asclepias as the best Milkweeds to plant for the Southeast: A. incarnata, A. tuberosa, A. perinnis, A. verticillata, and A. humistrata. From personal experience Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata) emergers early enough in North Georgia for passing Monarchs while A. tuberosa emerges potentially too late. See a list of suggested Milkweeds for your garden provided by the NWF here https://www.nwf.org/~/media/PDFs/Pollinators/Monarch_brochure_Southeast.pdf
Once established in your garden, look for Monarchs to lay eggs between April and early May. It may be hard to see the eggs so look for damage to the leaves from those secretive munchers. While Monarchs are known to be poisonous to predators from consuming the toxins in Milkweed, they are still susceptible to predation and it is suggested that you bring some of your caterpillars inside and rear them yourself! This suggestion is again from personal experience, one that watched all but 1 of 30 disappear! It is a fun, fascinating experience and a great learning tool for young and old alike! Follow the instructions provided by Monarch Watch here https://monarchwatch.org/rear/.
“What else can I do for Monarchs?” you ask? Not only do Monarchs need Milkweed to lay eggs on but they need a variety of native plants that provide precious nectar to fuel their flights north and south. Plant native alternatives in your yard whenever possible and see a large variety of pollinating insects benefit from your efforts. You can also help scientists track their fall and spring movements by contributing to a tracking map when you see a Monarch here https://journeynorth.org/sightings/. Donating to Monarch support groups and directly to the communities that protect the colonies is also a great way to assist. Last but not least, spread the word and let others know about the Monarch Butterfly and how they can participate in their recovery and future migrations!
Monarch Colony Warming Up in Sunlight – Sierra Chincua Colony, Michoacan Mexico
List of Native Plant and Potential Milkweed Sellers In Metro-Atlanta
A Visual Journey Through the Monarch Life Cycle, World Wildlife Federation
Day of the Dead, Journey North
Milkweed, World Wildlife Federation
Save the Monarch Butterfly, World Wildlife Federation
Spring, Journey North