Butterfly heaven

monarch birth 26 August 2012
monarch birth 26 August 2012

Today my sister’s grandchildren came calling my name, “Aunt Mary Ellen come quick. The butterfly is born.” I could hardly believe it was the  same monarch that was in a chrysalis this past week because it was too early in its development at this stage. Rather it turned out to be another monarch birth.

It took a child with eyes close to the ground to spot the newly emerged butterfly, which was resting on a blade of grass, after it emerged from a clear, see through chrysalis. Welcome to the world dear monarca. The caterpillar created a chrysalis right on a container pot. No one even suspected that there was a chrysalis there.

The other chrysalis we are watching is about ready to emerge. The wings are becoming more visible through the chrysalis as the hours pass by. It should prove interesting tomorrow. Here’s a shot of today’s chrysalis.

monarch chrysalis 26 August 2012

Monarch Butterfly Chatbook – Chrysalis


 When the outer shell of the pupa hardens it is known as a chrysalis (KRIH-sah-lis). The process of changing is known as metamorphosis (meh-tuh-MOR-fuh-sis). It takes approximately 10 days to two weeks before a butterfly emerges. A monarch butterfly goes through four unique stages in its life: egg, larva, pupa and adult butterfly. The caterpillar inside the chrysalis disintegrates into a green liquid which is mysteriously transformed into a monarch butterfly.

The Chrysalis starts off with a beautiful lime green color shell and has a striking band of gold near the top and three gold specks scattered near the bottom. According to Journey North, “The color itself comes from cardenolides in the milkweed that larvae eat.” What purpose the gold markings have is still unknown.

Monarch Butterfly Chatbook – Classic J Shape


When a caterpillar hangs in a classic J shape, it is ready to change into the pupa  (PYOO-puh) stage. I actually saw this poise. One day I was visiting a pond in the village and saw beautiful swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) growing near a pond’s edge. This was the only time I noticed monarch caterpillars eating milkweed flowers; they  had already eaten all the leaves on the milkweed plants. I visited the site for a few days. It wasn’t long before the caterpillars were no longer seen on milkweed plants. They may have found shelter on another plant or twig to begin the next stage of their life cycle.

Watching caterpillars in the wild is interesting. One day after a summer rain, I witnessed a caterpillar hiding under a milkweed leaf. The caterpillar was upside down with the abdomen prolegs clinging to a milkweed leaf. The caterpillar was peacefully fast asleep. Milkweed leaves can be large and this may help a caterpillar stay dry or hide from predators at night. Don’t be surprised if caterpillars go missing in late afternoon. They usually return to the top of milkweed leaves in the daytime once the sun warms them up by mid morning. 

In the fifth and last instar stage when a caterpillar is ready to shed its final skin it will no longer eat between the larva and adult butterfly stage. The caterpillar has an average of two or three weeks to complete its journey as a larva.

It is amazing to watch a caterpillar shed its last skin and change into a pupa or sac. The whole transformation takes place within a matter of minutes. Once the pupa is formed it is soft and needs to harden in order to protect what is within.

Monarch Butterfly Chatbook – The Egg


The male and female monarch butterfly will fly from Mexico to Texas. There they will mate and shortly thereafter die. The mother butterfly urgently needs to find milkweed to deposit her eggs on. This last act will insure the next generation of monarch butterflies. There are four generations that wind their way towards Canada. The fifth generation is the one that lives the longest and returns to Mexico in early fall. How does the butterfly know where milkweed grows?

The butterfly flits over a field or garden looking for milkweed. Watch the flight pattern and you may see a mother butterfly looking for a host plant. Plants have ultraviolet patterns on their leaves and flower petals making them visible to pollinators such as the monarch butterfly. Humans can’t see this but a butterfly can.  A monarch uses a combination of visual and chemical cues to find milkweed.

Once a mother butterfly lands on milkweed, she uses sensory organs in her feet and head to make sure it is milkweed. A monarch may even drum on a milkweed leaf with her forefeet to be certain. The forefeet are located close to the head.   

Notice that there are three eggs on the milkweed plant in the illustration. The mother butterfly carries approximately 200 eggs in her stomach. She touches the abdomen to the underside of a leaf and deposits an egg.  The mother usually deposits only one egg per plant. There is a reason for this. It is probable that the first caterpillar to emerge from an egg will scout for other eggs. A caterpillar is able to defend its own food territory when there is no competition.  Eggs have protein.  Sometimes a mother butterfly is in a hurry and may deposit more than one egg on the same plant. This is known as egg dumping.

By depositing eggs on different milkweed plants, eggs have a better chance of survival if something goes wrong.  There are many risks to milkweed including: Some plants may not be as hardy as others; a storm could destroy a plant; milkweed might be removed because a gardener thinks it is a weed; a land developer could clear cut a large track of land removing all native plants; farmers may plant monoculture crops, genetically engineered crops and may spray crops with pesticides.

There is a loss of approximately 3,000 acres of farmland each year to development. Roadside crews may use herbicides (ER-beh-syds) which poison milkweed, a plant that grows along roadways, one of the major corridors of butterflies. If there is no milkweed along the migration trail, there will be no monarch butterfly migration. This is why it is so important to let milkweed grow.