Monarchs, Queens, and Butterfly Mimicry

Most people are familiar with the beautiful Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). It can be found throughout most of the country,

Most people are familiar with the beautiful Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). It can be found throughout most of the country, and makes one of the most spectacular migrations in the animal world, travelling to Mexico en masse each fall to roost in the trees until the following spring. Butterfly gardeners faithfully plant milkweed for them each year, watching in delight as caterpillars chow down and grow up into a new generation of butterflies.

Some butterfly observers are occasionally fooled, though, by a mimic. The Queen butterfly (Danaus galippus) looks very similar to the Monarch butterfly, especially with its wings closed, and its caterpillars also eat milkweed.  Once you know a few simple tricks, though, it’s easy to tell the two apart.

  • Range: Monarchs have a much wider range, and in most parts of the country you’re more likely to see them. Queens are more common in the southern parts of the country, though in mid-summer when the temperatures soar, you’ll occasionally find them as far north as North Dakota.
  • Color: Queens are a darker, more rich orange color.
  • Patterns: With their wings open, the two are easy to tell apart, since Queens lack the black veining in their wings (seen below, with the Monarch on the left and the Queen on the right).

While it can be more difficult to tell them apart with their wings closed, it’s still possible, as Queens lack the black veins on their upper wings and have white spots on their lower wings. The color difference is also more pronounced. In the photo below, the monarch is on the top and the queen on the bottom.

  • Caterpillars: Monarch and Queen caterpillars are similar, but Queens have an extra pair of black spikes (tubercles) along the middle of their bodies. In the photo below, the Queen is on the left and the monarch on the right. Their chrysalis are almost identical, although Queens tend to be smaller and paler in color.

Why the similarities? Mimicry is common in the animal world. Kristen Gilpin, curator of the BioWorks Butterfly Garden Exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry, Tampa, explains:

We can see a case of mimicry among the Monarch (Danaus plexippus) and Queen butterflies (Danaus gilippus). Both species consume milkweed and sequester toxins from the plants in their bodies, making them both distasteful to predators such as birds. Both species utilize warning coloration of bright orange and red tones that generally warn of toxic qualities in prey. Both species resemble each other so strongly that they are often misidentified by people.

A bird that tastes a monarch will learn and remember that the bright orange coloration and pattern of decoration on a monarch butterfly is a signal of the unpalatability. A queen butterfly flying past later will likely be viewed as ‘not food’ since it bears such a striking resemblance to a creature which tasted very bad to the bird. Thus the two species gain an advantage against predators by each offering the same bad taste to the predators and reinforcing that bad taste with a very similar appearance.

In other words, both butterflies taste bad and may even be toxic. The same applies to the caterpillars. They look alike, so once a bird tries to eat one of the species, they’ll be likely to avoid both in the future. To learn more about mimicry, click here to read Ms. Gilpin’s entire article.

Do you have monarchs and queens in your garden? Have you ever mistaken one for the other? Tell us about your experiences with these two butterflies in the comments below.

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Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find her reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.