Monarch butterflies are some of the most stunning species of butterfly to visit gardens. Although these orange-colored winged insects are native to North America, they are also found in Australia, New Zealand, and Spain. Monarchs are not just delightful to observe, they also play an important role in our planet’s ecosystem.
Monarch butterflies and bees are beneficial insects that pollinate flowers. Unfortunately, reports also indicate that monarchs, just like bees, are at risk of becoming an endangered species. A report in 2019 found that there is no consensus of opinion as to why this is happening. Some theories include the increased use of herbicides, the effects of climate change, or it could be the destruction of natural habitats.
In this article, you will find out all about the monarch butterfly. You will also learn what you can do to create a habitat to attract monarchs and other butterflies to your garden.
Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle
Monarch butterflies are a species of winged insect in the family Nymphalidae and the genus Danaus. The scientific name for the monarch butterfly is Danaus plexippus and it is also called the “wanderer”, “common tiger butterfly”, or the “black-veined brown butterfly”.
As with all butterflies, the monarchs start life as larvae that hatch from eggs. Monarch caterpillars go through 5 stages of growth called instars during which their sole purpose is to eat as much plant food as they can. The larvae feed exclusively on milkweed and when they are mature, they can eat a whole leaf in a day.
Some caterpillars have been known to eat up to 27,000 times their body weight! At each instar, the caterpillar sheds its outer skin before growing a new one.
At maturity, the caterpillars grow to between 2.5 and 4.5 cm (1” to 1.7”) long. You can identify monarch caterpillars by their plump striped body that has black, yellow, and white stripes.
Monarch Butterfly Chrysalis
Before entering the pupa or chrysalis stage, monarch caterpillars find a branch and hang upside down. At this stage, you will notice that the larva forms a “J” shape. The caterpillar sheds its skin and a chrysalis form around it. During the pupal stage that lasts from 8 to 15 days, the larva goes through a metamorphosis and turns into a monarch butterfly.
Adult Monarch Butterflies
After the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, it will continue to hang for a few hours to pump fluid into its wings, they can have a wingspan of up to 10 cm (4”) wide.
The beautiful monarch butterfly with its distinctive orange wings then flies off to pollinate flowers.
Monarch butterflies live for up to 5 weeks. However, the generation of monarchs that hatch later in the season can live for up to 8 months. These are the migratory monarch butterflies that fly south to parts of Mexico and Florida overwinter before returning to areas in the northern United States and Canada.
How to Create a Monarch Habitat?
The best way to create a habitat suitable for monarchs is to plant plenty of milkweed plants in your garden. Milkweeds are a species of plant in the family Apocynaceae and grow in the wild in Australia. The journal Austral Ecology reports that the quality of milkweed plants can greatly determine the survival of D. plexippus larvae into their adult stage.
Monarch larvae are dependent on munching their way through milkweed to survive. Some common types of milkweed that these caterpillars love are ‘common milkweed’, ‘whorled milkweed’, ‘butterfly weed’, and ‘crown flower’.
Adult butterflies drink the nectar of milkweeds. However, they also feed on the nectar of flowers such as coneflowers, thistles, asters, lilac, alfalfa, and goldenrod.
If you are serious about creating a habitat to attract monarchs and other butterflies, then it’s important to avoid using insecticides. Some organic gardening techniques such as planting companion flowers, using organic pesticides, or introducing beneficial insects can help keep pests away from your crops. These methods will also attract butterflies, bees and other important pollinator insects.
Growing Monarch Butterflies
You may also want to grow monarch butterflies at home. This can be a fascinating and fun activity for kids and can also help educate them on the importance of conservation.
The first step is to make sure that you have plenty of milkweed growing in your garden. A monarch caterpillar can munch its way through a whole plant during all of its 5 growth stages. During spring and summer, you should check the underside of milkweed leaves for eggs. You can then cut an egg-containing leaf off to take inside to grow.
The best way to grow monarchs at home is to get a mesh enclosure for raising butterflies. These allow enough air to circulate and also provide the perfect environment to feed your caterpillars. Once the butterflies have emerged from their chrysalis, they will also have enough space to fly around.
At this point, you can decide to release the beautiful monarch into the wild for it to pollinate flowers.