What are Monarch Butterflies?
The brilliant black and orange wings of the monarch make it one of the most instantly recognizable butterflies found in North America.
A member of the danaidae butterfly family, monarchs are considered ‘brush-footed’ butterflies; the term alludes to their two front legs, which resemble brushes. These legs are used for tasting food and, because they’re much shorter than the others, can be difficult to see with the naked eye.
Monarch butterflies begin their lives as eggs deposited on the underside of milkweed plants. As caterpillars, they subsist solely on the poisonous milkweed plant and subsequently become poisonous themselves. This defense mechanism means they’re left alone by the predators that would otherwise see them as a tasty snack.
The monarch’s ability to evade predators has even caused other, non-poisonous butterflies to imitate its appearance. If you were to look at the viceroy butterfly, for instance, you would be convinced you were looking at a monarch – and so, more importantly, would those pesky predatory birds, wasps, and dragonflies!
Perhaps the most fascinating trait of the monarch butterfly is its immense migration process. To escape the winter cold, North American monarchs will travel as many as 2000 miles to reach the warmer climates of Florida, Texas, Southern California, and Mexico.
While overwinter monarch butterflies can live many months, migrating monarchs usually only have a life span of around 4-6 weeks. Because of this, several generations will be born, live, and die during the process. By the time summer comes around, the monarchs that return to the north will be the great, great grandchildren of those that left the year before.
Over the past years, there has been growing concern over the massive reduction of monarchs in North America, with numbers dropping a staggering 96% compared to two decades ago. Contributing factors include climate fluctuations, deforestation, and, most crucially, dwindling milkweed plants as a result of increased agricultural herbicide use.
However, there are some signs that the monarch population may be on its way back. This is due, in part, to a grassroots response to the monarch’s plight. By planting milkweeds in open spaces, members of the public can provide the monarch with a space to breed. Check out the links below for advice on how to grow milkweeds in your garden and other ways you can help.
Download our Butterfly Diagram and label the parts!