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Posts tagged “Danaus plexippus

Monarchs Starting To Leave Mexico

The Monarchs’ migration north has begun! We are not the only part of the world that is experiencing unusually high temperatures — there has been a heat wave in Mexico this spring where the Monarchs overwinter, and it has them on the move, leaving their sanctuaries and beginning the more than 2,000 mile journey to New England.

This overwintering generation of Monarchs lays eggs in northern Mexico and southern U.S. and then dies.  When their eggs hatch and develop into adults, usually by late April to early June, they continue the journey north that their parents began, laying eggs along the way.  They begin to arrive in northern U. S. and southern Canada in late May.

To follow their progress northward, go to Journey North’s site,  Although we probably won’t see any Monarchs in New England until the end of May at the earliest, it’s fun to be able to see exactly how far they have gotten as spring progresses.  Journey North citizen scientists also monitor mammals, amphibians and birds.  To participate in their research or to see their observations go to

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Monarchs Splitting Exoskeleton For The Fifth And Final Time

In the Northeast there appears to be an amazingly large number of Monarch larvae this year, and most of these larvae will complete their metamorphosis by transforming into a beautiful green chrysalis. Once mature, the larva, or caterpillar, wanders about and finds a suitable spot (usually protected and stable) to spend the next two weeks hanging precariously in the wind.  It then spins a silk mat in this location, and puts a silk “button” in the middle of the mat.  It clasps the button with its last set of prolegs (it has three pairs of true legs, and five pairs of so-called prolegs) and spends about 18 hours hanging in a “J,” with its head down, preparing to split its exoskeleton for the last time and reveal the chrysalis within it.

Ba Rea, a Monarch specialist (and publisher of my children’s book, Milkweed Visitors), informs her “Monarchchaser’s Blog” ( readers that even though the visible changes between the larval and pupal (chrysalis) stages of a Monarch are sudden, inside the caterpillar these changes are taking place gradually and long before we can see them.  “The parts that will transform the caterpillar into a butterfly are present from the time that the egg hatches.  Inside the caterpillar are “imaginal disks.”  As wonderfully fanciful as the word imaginal sounds, it is actually referring to the adult stage of the monarch which is called the imago.  These disks are the cells that will become the butterfly’s wings, legs, proboscis and antennae, among other things.  By the time the caterpillar is half an inch long its butterfly wings are already developing inside it.

After eight to fifteen days, the adult Monarch emerges from its chrysalis and heads towards Mexico (butterflies that emerge after the middle of August migrate). It is the great grandchildren and great great grandchildren of these migrating monarchs that will return next summer.  (Photo: Monarch hanging in a “J” from Jewelweed, also known as Touch-Me-Not — not the sturdiest of plants to hang from!)

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Caterpillars Eating & Molting

The larval stage of a butterfly or moth is spent doing little but eating.  Only as a caterpillar will these insects have chewing mouthparts, and they waste no time in using them. As they eat, caterpillars increase in size and their skin (exoskeleton) becomes tighter and tighter, as it doesn’t grow larger.  The caterpillar grows a new, larger exoskeleton underneath the outer skin and then sheds, or molts, the old one. Most caterpillars molt five times.  At first, the new exoskeleton is very soft and not very protective, but it soon hardens. The shed exoskeleton is often eaten before the caterpillar ingests more plant food.

There are names for the caterpillar’s stage of development in between each molt, called “instars.”  When the caterpillar hatches from its egg, it is referred to as a “first instar” caterpillar.  After its first molt, the caterpillar is referred to as a “second instar,” and so on up until the exoskeleton is shed for the final time, revealing the chrysalis (if it’s a butterfly).

The Monarch in the photograph is a very new 4th instar instar caterpillar (see antennae which haven’t hardened).  It has shed three times.  Its third exoskeleton (which it has just shed) is on the milkweed leaf behind the caterpillar. To see a real-time video of a Monarch molting go to

(Thanks to Otis Brown for his keen eye in finding this Monarch caterpillar before it ate its just-molted skin.  Also to Ba Rea (( for her instar confirmation.)

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Monarch Butterfly Larvae Are Cannabalistic

The very first meal that a Monarch Butterfly caterpillar eats is its own eggshell.  In order to hatch, it eats its way out of the egg, and then polishes off the remainder of the eggshell.  It then starts to wander around the leaf and if it finds another Monarch egg, it will start to eat it.

Female Monarch Butterflies lay 300-500 eggs over two to five weeks of egg-laying. Normally, a Monarch only lays one egg at a time (on the underside of a tender, young milkweed leaf).  It is fairly rare to find more than one egg on a leaf, or even on the same plant.  After a female lays an egg, several seconds up to a minute goes by before she lays another egg (referred to as a refractory period). During this time she usually moves on and finds another milkweed plant on which to lay the next egg.  This lapse of time between the laying of each egg probably evolved to discourage the laying of multiple eggs on one leaf and to encourage the dispersal of a female’s eggs on different milkweed plants so as to decrease the chances of cannibalism occurring.

According to Dr. Lincoln Brower, renowned Monarch entomologist, a cluster of Monarch eggs on any given milkweed leaf indicates that either milkweed is in short supply, or the female that laid the eggs is either sick, very old or she has been flying for a very long time and several eggs have matured.

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Maybe A Great Year For Monarchs?

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I have no idea what the status of monarch caterpillars is in other parts of the country this year, but at least in parts of Vermont and New Hampshire, they are plentiful!  Two on one plant — just like the old days! (Thanks to Sadie Brown for NH input.)

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First Monarchs Have Arrived At Wintering Sanctuaries


During the first two weeks of October, south winds prevented migrating Monarchs from making a lot of progress on their flight southward. Cold fronts were weak during this time, and wind blew from the north infrequently. On Oct.12 this persistent weather pattern broke, headwinds subsided and thousands of Monarchs were seen migrating through Texas. By Oct. 20 the first Monarchs entered Mexico and by the 23rd the first butterflies had reached their wintering grounds. Follow their progress as they continue to stream across northern Mexico, headed for their sanctuaries, at

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Eggs Of Migrating Generation Of Monarchs Hatching

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The Monarch eggs that are hatching now contain the larvae that will metamorphose into the butterflies that will migrate this fall to central Mexico. Unlike earlier-hatching generations that only live six to eight weeks, the Monarchs that result from late summer and early fall hatchings live six to nine months. Part of the reason for this difference in life span is that, unlike the earlier generations that mate soon after emerging from their chrysalides, late-hatching Monarchs postpone mating (reproductive diapause) until the end of winter, thereby conserving energy for their two to three thousand-mile, two-month migration. (Photo: monarch larva’s first meal – its eggshell.)

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Monarch Butterflies Reach Wintering Grounds

Two days ago, on November 6th, the first Monarch Butterflies arrived in their 73-mile-wide overwintering area in the Transvolcanic Mountains of Central Mexico. This miraculous flight, which takes a Monarch roughly two months, can be up to 3,000 miles long. Using the sun, and most likely the earth’s magnetic field, they head for specific stands of Oyamel Fir trees, where they will cluster and be protected, unless weather conditions are severe, from extreme temperatures, predators , rain and snow until next March, when their journey north begins. (These butterflies only get about half way back to New England, at which time they mate and lay eggs. The third or fourth generation of these monarchs will reach their eastern destination.) To track the migration of these remarkable insects, go to
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Monarch Numbers Down

7-22-13 monarch IMG_1107According to the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, this spring and summer there’s been an estimated drop of 90% in the overall monarch population in eastern Canada – the most dramatic decline ever recorded. Vermont (and most likely New England in general) is experiencing much the same situation. The low numbers of monarchs are due to several factors that they have encountered along their migratory routes the past couple of years, including extreme temperatures, record drought, low nectar production by flowering plants and a scarcity of their host plant, milkweed. The cold temperatures and record amounts of rain this spring undoubtedly added to their stress.

Monarch Butterfly Migration is Underway

Monarch Butterflies have begun migrating — the peak of their migration in Central Vermont/New Hampshire is September 3 – 15. Monarchs typically cycle through four generations during the breeding season. The final generation migrates to Mexico. Those individuals emerging in late summer live much longer than the Monarchs that are around in June and July (6-9 month life span vs. 6-8 weeks). This allows Monarchs in the East the time needed to migrate up to 3,000 miles (a trip that takes roughly two months) to central Mexico, live through the winter and to begin a return trip (making it only about halfway back), mating along the way. The succeeding generations of Monarchs continue the return trip back to New England, and with luck, the great (or great-great) grandchildren of the butterflies that are migrating to Mexico now will grace our milkweed patches next summer.

Monarch Butterfly Chrysalis

Of the multitude of discoveries that every summer offers us, one of the most magical is that of  a Monarch Butterfly chrysalis.  While locating a Monarch larva is not all that difficult, especially when they are as prolific as they are this summer, finding a chrysalis doesn’t happen all that often. Most butterfly chrysalises are a rather drab brown, but the Monarch’s is a beautiful green which serves to camouflage it in fields where the caterpillars feed on milkweed and eventually pupate (form a chrysalis).  The Monarch caterpillar, when mature, usually seeks a sheltered spot under a leaf or branch where rain will not cause the silk button by which it hangs to disintegrate.  The chrysalis in the photograph is attached to a blade of grass which was anchored with silk to another blade of grass in order to make it more secure.  No matter how many I’ve seen, each one still takes my breath away.

Viceroy Butterfly

The Viceroy Butterfly closely resembles the Monarch Butterfly, but is smaller, and has a black line that runs across the veins of its back wings, which the Monarch lacks. While Viceroys don’t contain the poisonous cardiac glycosides that Monarchs do, they do contain salicylic acid due to fact that the larvae feed on willows. This acid not only causes the Viceroy to taste bad, but makes whatever eats it sick. So not only do these two butterflies look alike, but they discourage predators in the same way. This is not a coincidence. The fact that they are both toxic if eaten and are preyed upon by some of the same predators has led to their similar appearance. This phenomenon is referred to as Müllerian mimicry, and essentially it means if two insects resemble each other, they both benefit from each other’s defense mechanism — should a predator eat one insect with a certain coloration and find it inedible, it will learn to avoid catching any insects with similar coloration.

Monarch Butterfly Eggs Hatching

It appears that this may be a good year for monarchs in the Northeast, as with very little looking, you can find their eggs as well as young monarch caterpillars. Look on the underside of the top leaf or two on young milkweed plants – these leaves are tender and monarchs often lay their tiny, ribbed eggs there (usually one per plant) as they (leaves) are ideal food for young larvae. The first meal a monarch larva eats is its egg shell. It then moves on to nearby milkweed leaf hairs, and then the leaf itself. Often the first holes it chews are U-shaped, which are thought to help prevent sticky sap (which can glue a monarch caterpillar’s mandibles shut) from pouring into the section of leaf being eaten.

Invertebrate Signs

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A quick look recently at the underside of a wooden bench sitting in the middle of a nearby field revealed a multitude of signs of insects and spiders that sought shelter in this protected spot.  They included the empty chrysalis of a monarch butterfly, the flat, red egg  sac of a Phrurotimpus  antmimic  spider (look closely and you’ll see bumps in the middle  made by the eggs underneath the silk), the silk and twig case of a bagworm moth larva , and a cocoon which is housing the pupa of a moth. 

Some Monarchs Outwit Milkweed

We think of monarch larvae as being impervious to the  ills of milkweed, but they are very vulnerable when it comes to the sticky latex in the sap of their host plant.  The mandibles of young monarch caterpillars are often glued together by this latex, preventing them from eating.  Research shows that about 30 percent of monarch larval loss results from miring  in this glue-like substance.  One strategy young larvae use is to chew a near circle in a milkweed leaf, blocking the flow of latex to the enclosed surface area, which they then eat.  If a monarch survives the first few stages, or instars, of its larval life, it uses yet another strategy to circumvent the latex.  Older, larger larvae often cut through the midvein of a leaf they wish to consume, which dams the latex flow to the entire leaf beyond the cut.  Look for limp leaves as you peruse a milkweed patch.  If you find one, you may be rewarded with the nearby presence of a monarch caterpillar.