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  • Valerie Just

It's All About the Monarchs...

I planted a lot of small butterfly weed plants this spring in my established landscape, plus in a new landscape that Country Landscapes in Des Moines established for me this year. These plants not only support my bees, but butterfly weeds are a select plant that support Monarch butterfly reproduction. Butterfly weed is a member of the milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae) and Monarch butterflies will only lay eggs on the underside of the milkweed family of plants. I have some information gained from the USDA below about the toxicity of the plant, and how the toxicity is utilized by Monarch caterpillars (and eventually, the butterflies) as a defense mechanism.

A couple of days ago, while watering the new plants, I discovered a Monarch caterpillar was devouring one of my new plants. Now, had it been one of 'those pesky wabbits' voraciously eating my plant, I might have been inclined to get out the BB gun (sorry if I'm offending anyone - but wabbits in years past have destroyed my pollinator plants!). But in my yard, monarch caterpillars consuming my plants are welcome every day of the week.

I took some pictures with my phone, and they are not the best pictures, but it establishes the presence of my caterpillar! It is down towards the base of the plant. This caterpillar has been eating for a number of days - look how big it is! I've included the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly below - but it typically takes about 2 weeks for the caterpillar to move on to the chrysalis stage.

I checked in on my caterpillar last night, and it has devoured 3 branches of my plant now, and is probably working on a 4th branch today. I feel safe in saying that by the time it pupates, my plant will probably look fairly tattered! If you have young children, the book The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a favorite of children. See the Just for Kids! page on my website for more information.

Yes, I realize that most anyone reading this will think I'm preposterous, but providing a food source that ensures another generation of monarchs will carry on is what I strive for most days. A sad, but oh, so true commentary!

Here is one more resource that goes into greater detail on the life cycle.

I would like to encourage anyone that wants to have the opportunity to contribute to the conservation of the Monarch butterfly to reach out to me. I would be happy to provide you milkweed seeds, and I have several species, that you can plant in your own garden! Please utilize our contact page to reach out!

Life Cycle of the Monarch Butterfly

Monarch butterflies go through four stages during one life cycle, and through four generations in one year. It’s a little confusing but keep reading and you will understand. The four stages of the monarch butterfly life cycle are the egg, the larvae (caterpillar), the pupa (chrysalis), and the adult butterfly. The four generations are actually four different butterflies going through these four stages during one year until it is time to start over again with stage one and generation one.

In February and March, the final generation of hibernating monarch butterflies comes out of hibernation to find a mate. They then migrate north and east in order to find a place to lay their eggs. This starts stage one and generation one of the new year for the monarch butterfly.

In March and April the eggs are laid on milkweed plants. They hatch into baby caterpillars, also called the larvae. It takes about four days for the eggs to hatch. Then the baby caterpillar doesn’t do much more than eat the milkweed in order to grow. After about two weeks, the caterpillar will be fully-grown and find a place to attach itself so that it can start the process of metamorphosis. It will attach itself to a stem or a leaf using silk and transform into a chrysalis. Although, from the outside, the 10 days of the chrysalis phase seems to be a time when nothing is happening, it is really a time of rapid change. Within the chrysalis the old body parts of the caterpillar are undergoing a remarkable transformation, called metamorphosis, to become the beautiful parts that make up the butterfly that will emerge. The monarch butterfly will emerge from the pupa and fly away, feeding on flowers and just enjoying the short life it has left, which is only about two to six weeks. This first generation monarch butterfly will then die after laying eggs for generation number two.

The second generation of monarch butterflies is born in May and June, and then the third generation will be born in July and August. These monarch butterflies will go through exactly the same four stage life cycle as the first generation did, dying two to six weeks after it becomes a beautiful monarch butterfly.

The fourth generation of monarch butterflies is a little bit different than the first three generations. The fourth generation is born in September and October and goes through exactly the same process as the first, second and third generations except for one part. The fourth generation of monarch butterflies does not die after two to six weeks. Instead, this generation of monarch butterflies migrates to warmer climates like Mexico and California and will live for six to eight months until it is time to start the whole process over again.

It is amazing how the four generations of monarch butterflies works out so that the monarch population can continue to live on throughout the years, but not become overpopulated. Mother Nature sure has some cool ways of doing things, doesn’t she?

United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service

Milkweed species, as a group, are known to contain cardiac glycosides that are poisonous both to humans and to livestock, as well as other substances that may account for their medicinal effect. Resinoids, glycosides, and a small amount of alkaloids are present in all parts of the plant. Symptoms of poisoning by the cardiac glycosides include dullness, weakness, bloating, inability to stand or walk, high body temperature, rapid and weak pulse, difficulty breathing, dilated pupils, spasms, and coma. The cardiac glycoside in milkweed has also been useful as a chemical defense for monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). Chemicals from the milkweed plant make the monarch caterpillar's flesh distasteful to most predators. Monarch butterflies are specific to milkweed plants. This is the only type of plant on which the eggs are laid and the larvae will feed and mature into a chrysalis. Eggs are laid on the underside of young healthy leaves. Monarch, Queen, and Viceroy butterflies are Müllerian mimics, all are toxic, and have co-evolved similar warning patterns to avoid predation.


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