Make Way for Monarchs!

Jill Staake

Every weekend, the Focus on Natives segment highlights a plant, bird, or butterfly native to the Southeastern U.S. Know of a particular species you’d like to see featured here? Make your suggestions in the comments section below.

Focus on Natives:
Make Way for Monarchs!

Right now, in the forest of Michoacán, Mexico, the trees are stirring. As the sunlight grows stronger with the approach of spring, millions of pairs of wings begin to stretch, and flashes of orange begin to fill the air. The time has come… the monarchs are awakening, and getting ready to return north for the summer.

They’re headed our way!The monarch is one of our most beloved butterflies, so much so that it’s the state butterfly or insect of Alabama, North Carolina, and West Virgina, along with several other states. Children study them in school, and National Geographic has featured their amazing journey as part of the Great Migration series. NASA even sent them into space!

I’m fortunate enough to see them nearly every day of the year in my backyard here in Tampa, and as we speak, a dozen little caterpillars are already chomping their way through my milkweed. They’re migrating north now – you can check their progress on Journey North’s website, and report sightings of your own.

Let’s take a closer look at this incredible insect, and learn how you too can bring them to your own garden.

Monarchs are sexually dimorphic, and telling them apart is easy. Look at the lower hindwings - females (bottom) have wider black lines, while males (top) have thinner black lines and black "scent spots" they use to draw females during mating.

Who:

What:

  • Genus: Danaidae, the milkweed butterflies
  • Family: Nymphalidae, the brush-footed butterflies
  • Wingspan: 3.5 – 4 inches
  • Lifespan: About 2 weeks as an egg/caterpillar, 2 weeks in chrysalis, and 4 weeks (non-migratory) – 6 months (migratory) as a butterfly.

Where and When:

  • Monarchs are found throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America, and part of South America at various times of the year.
  • Some areas of the United States, including Southern California and Central and South Florida, have year-round populations.
  • Migratory monarchs winter in Central Mexico as adults. Millions of them hang from trees in a state of diapause, waiting for warmer weather. Click here to learn more about monarch life cycles in conjunction with migration.
  • Monarch butterflies can be found nectaring on a wide variety of flowers, but their caterpillars are found only on milkweed.

Milkweed Brings All the Monarchs to the Garden:

At the MOSI BioWorks Butterfly Garden here in Tampa, where I do a great deal of volunteer work,  I’m frequently asked, “How do I get monarchs to come to my garden?” The answer is a delightfully simple one - just plant milkweed. Milkweed (Asclepias spp.)  is the “all-in-one” butterfly plant – caterpillars eat the leaves and butterflies drink from the flowers. There are dozens of species of milkweed native to the U.S., and in many places it grows rampant along the sides of roads and in open fields.

This milkweed has been partially defoliated by monarch caterpillars. Note the bare stalks on the right side where caterpillars have eaten the leaves and flowers.

Why milkweed? Butterflies are specialists when it comes to their caterpillars. Most species will lay only on certain plants, because its only on those plants, called host plants, that their caterpillars can feed. Monarch caterpillars can only eat milkweed. The sticky milk-like sap inside the plants helps them build up a toxicity that makes them distasteful or downright poisonous to birds and other predators.  When you plant a field of milkweed, you are basically creating a monarch nursery. Remember this, though – monarch caterpillars will defoliate your plants, eating leaves and flowers rapaciously. Don’t plant milkweed for its looks – plant it for the wildlife value instead.

  • TIP: For an easy way to get started, order Monarch Watch’s Waystation Seed Kit. It includes seed for a variety of milkweed species and nectar plants, providing everything you need all in one. Once you have your Waystation established, you can register your site at Monarch Watch to join others who are creating stopovers for migrating and mating monarchs throughout the U.S.

What to Look For:

While monarchs themselves are pretty recognizable, not everyone knows what eggs and caterpillars look like at first sight. Here are some of the signs you have monarchs in your garden:

Look for small white oval monarch eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves.

This tiny caterpillar probably hatched a day or two ago. The white spots are actually lacewing eggs, approximately the size of a pinhead.

This caterpillar is about a week old. Compare it to the one above that's about a day old. They grow very quickly!

Large monarch caterpillars are easily recognizable by the black, white, and yellow stripes.

A monarch chrysalis. (Butterflies make a chrysalis; moths make a cocoon.)

When the butterfly is ready to emerge, the chrysalis becomes transparent and the butterfly is visible inside.

Monarchs will nectar on many plants, although in my garden they're usually drawn right to the milkweed flowers.

These mating monarchs will stay like this for up to several hours - when then female flies off, the male will stay attached.

OK, let’s face it, I could go on about monarchs for hours. I’ll stop here, though, and ask you – what about your own monarch experiences? What kinds of milkweed do you plant, and where do you get it from? When do monarchs arrive in your yard each year? What else would you like to know about these magnificent insects? Drop by the comments and let us know!

  1. says

    Nice information Jill. I never knew the difference between the males and females before, and now I will pay attention and see if I can’t distinguish them in person!

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