Summer with a Monarch Butterfly
Awaiting publication in Butterfly Gardener Magazine
The Spring and Summer of 2017
In April 2017 I was rushed to the hospital for bacterial pneumonia and septic shock. I came very close to death. Upon my release from the hospital I was still weak as the disease ate all my muscle. I knew that I had to rebuild in order to get as healthy as possible. I found walking and gardening good ways to start rebuilding.
While walking down a country road in my neighborhood I found a dying monarch butterfly on the side of the road. As I bent to pick the butterfly up I discovered it was alive but extremely weak. The little butterfly tried to fly away but could not stand on its own legs. I decided to bring it home so sheltered it in my hands while I returned to the house and nectar plants.
I placed the butterfly on one of my butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) plants and it immediately extended its proboscis to drink from it. I googled information to see if I could do more but the monarch refused anything else I offered. I spent the day monitoring it and rushed out the next morning to see if it was still alive. I was happy to find it still alive and this began my education on monarch butterflies.
Differences between Male and Female Monarchs
The first thing I wanted to know was whether it was male or female. After googling this question I found you it was relatively easy to tell the sexes apart1. After some hunting I found my rescued monarch near the place I left him. I knew it was the rescued butterfly as it was the only monarch in my yard at the time. I quickly discovered the two pheromones on his lower wings which it used to attract females to mate with.
This rescued male monarch butterfly lived for 6 weeks and I spent most of the summer observing him. It gave me a window into the world of monarchs. I learned more in that summer than by observing him than any of my years in science class.
Male Monarchs Patrol Territory
One of the first things I learned was that male monarchs fly around the perimeter of their territory2. In my yard that covers almost five acres. This patrolling of territory occurs multiple times during the day. If he found a male in his territory fighting ensued. If he found a female he would mate with her. I enjoyed watching him sail across the property in search of noble battles and fair maidens to consort with.
As the summer progressed I could easily find a dozen or so monarch butterflies in the yard on a sunny afternoon. Every time he would see a male – even if the male had been there for an hour or so – he would begin to chase the other and they would box. After fighting he would be tired and would fly to the grass and rest.
Female Monarch Butterflies and Milkweed
After more research I discovered that female monarch butterflies travel vast distances looking for appropriate milkweed to lay a single egg on3. The more milkweed they lay their eggs on the greater their chances some will survive.
Female monarchs are born with all their eggs and only require one mating to fertilize them. Additional mates give them strength.
If the female monarch is unable to find appropriate milkweed she will lay all her eggs on one milkweed plant reducing the likelihood that those eggs will survive. The more monarch caterpillars on one plant the more likely a predator will find them.
Multiple Generations a Year
In the northeast we have multiple generations of monarch butterflies in one year4. The first generation migrates from Mexico into the parts of the United States to lay their eggs. The next couple of generations make the journey into New York arriving between June and July. Then two more generations are born living up to 6 weeks to fight, breed and lay more eggs. The final generation of monarch butterflies is born between September and October and they head south to Mexico.
There are other overwintering sites in the southeast and southwest as late monarchs may not make it to Mexico.
Milkweed species in the Northeast
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is the iconic milkweed of summer5. This plant stands tall in a meadow or side of the road, pink flowers drooping on the stem, and is increasingly harder to find. Preferring dry sites this milkweed is critical for monarchs.
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) sports a beautiful rose color flower attractive to many pollinators. This milkweed is preferred by female monarch butterflies.
Butterfly weed is a late blooming plant for monarch caterpillars. Typically available during the fall it becomes an important source of food for the last generation of caterpillars.
Additional milkweed species include purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), and poke milkweed (Asclepias exaltata). Swamp milkweed and butterfly weed are good choices for gardeners who would like to add milkweed but are unwilling to turn their yard into a meadow. Both swamp milkweed and butterfly weed are species that do not spread aggressively.
Six Weeks Later
After six weeks after I rescued the male monarch he died. While I mourned his loss I discovered his legacy on a butterfly weed weeks later. I found a dozen or so monarch caterpillars late fall and watched as many of them transformed into monarch butterflies.
Every year the Buffalo Audubon Center educates children through their hands-on educational programs6. Every child (no matter the age) I led through the meadow gazes in wonder at a monarch caterpillar munching on a milkweed leaf and delights at a monarch in flight. Future generations will have this as well but we must continue to restore meadows and plant milkweed.