Fall of 2008 was definitely the most exciting year in my gardening experiences. I bought milkweed plants in hopes that I would finally get to witness the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly. The first variety I purchased was Asclepias Tuberosa, Silky Gold. This particular variety of Milkweed has clusters of bright yellow flowers on it.
I carefully watched the plant all summer long and was delighted one fall afternoon to find a tiny Monarch caterpillar on it! Since Monarch caterpillars are often eaten by predatory insects, I quickly moved my little one to milkweed plants on my screen porch and witnessed a miracle! Raising a Monarch in this type of controlled environment increases its survival rate by 90%!
The life cycle of a monarch butterfly from egg to adult is completed in about 30 to 45 days and each phase offers a look into the unique life of this beautiful creature. Monarchs usually lay a single egg on a plant, often on the bottom of a leaf near the top of the plant. The female attaches the egg to the leaf with quick-drying glue which she secretes along with the egg. For egg laying, they do not seem to discriminate milkweed plants whether they are currently in bloom or not. The egg is white or almost clear and is ridged and spherical in shape. It is difficult to tell just how many eggs each female lays during her life, but the average is probably from 100 to 300. The eggs hatch about four days after they are laid.
It is during this stage (larva or caterpillar) that Monarchs do all of their growing. They begin life by eating their eggshell, and then move on to the plant on which they were laid. The baby caterpillars eat the milkweed leaves, and grow very quickly. I have found they tend to prefer eating the leaves of plants that aren’t in bloom to those that are. The milkweed contains a poison that the monarchs use as a defense. While the poison doesn't hurt the monarchs, it makes them taste bad to birds and other predators. Predators soon learn to avoid the bright colors of the monarch caterpillars and butterflies.
When the caterpillar has become too large for its skin, it molts, or sheds its skin. At first, the new skin is very soft, and provides little support or protection. The new skin soon hardens and molds itself to the caterpillar, which often eats the shed skin before eating more of the plant. The intervals between molts are called instars. Monarchs go through five instars, the first of which being as small as a grain of rice and the largest being as big as your pinky finger.
The caterpillar spins silk from its spinneret, a body part on its lower lip, and attaches its hind end to a branch with the silk and small hooks in the anal prolegs. It hangs head down and molts for the last time. During the pupal stage the transformation from larva to adult is completed. Pupae are much less mobile than larvae or adults, but they often exhibit sudden movements if they are disturbed.
I’ve never seen anything more beautiful than a Monarch Chrysalis. In the beginning it looks much like the caterpillar in color with white and yellow stripes, but different in form. Then its magnificence really starts to show in the most beautiful color of jade with little speckles of gold so pure it looks like someone painted it on. Suddenly the Chrysalis begins to change yet again. It starts to turn clear and the wings of the young butterfly can be seen.
Once the wings can be seen through the Chrysalis, it only takes about a day before the butterfly starts to emerge. Happy to stretch its wings for the first time, the Monarch slowly opens and closes them for a few hours. This is necessary so the wings will dry, otherwise he won’t be able to fly. Close attention during this time will also show that the Monarch butterfly can’t eat immediately. He has to exercise his Probocsis for a while before it is fully functional. This is what the Monarch uses to eat nectar.
Male and female Monarchs can be distinguished easily. Males have a black spot on a vein on each hind wing that is not present on the female. These spots are made of specialized scales which produce a chemical used during courtship in many species of butterflies and moths, although such a chemical does not seem to be important in Monarch courtship.
As the weather gets colder, monarchs begin their annual migration. Tens of millions of these butterflies travel as far as 2,000 miles to spend the winter in a mountain forest in Central Mexico. Monarchs sometimes cover whole trees of eucalyptus and pine groves, so many that you can barely see the tree itself. People from all over the world travel to this part of Mexico each year to witness this amazing event. In the spring the Monarchs will make the long journey back north, and lay eggs along the way.
Watching Maximus rest gently on my finger tips, I really felt like he was thanking me for helping Mother Nature raise him. He seemed to enjoy this short stay on my hand before flying off into the sunset. I can only hope that he tells all his friends in Mexico to stop by and visit me so I can watch the cycle all over again.