As I walked past the hydrangea bush, a big orange butterfly flew up and gently batted me on the nose! I stopped to investigate. I’ve grown accustomed to the buzzing of many bees visiting the hydrangea, and there are usually a few butterflies to be seen as well. But on this day, what caught my eye were more than a dozen regal fliers, Monarchs and a few Viceroys.
The Viceroys (Limenitis archippus) are more inclined to pose with their wings open, which makes them easy to differentiate from the similar Monarchs. The Viceroys display an easy-to-spot black line across their lower wings. Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) are well known for their reputation as foul-tasting, a result of their absorption of chemicals found in the milkweed plants eaten by caterpillars. Viceroy caterpillars dine on willows, which contain small amounts of salicylic acid, a chemical related to the acetylsalicylic acid in aspirin. The salicylic acid stored in the bodies of Viceroys makes them foul-tasting as well.
Monarchs and Viceroys have very different life cycles. The Viceroys will overwinter as caterpillars,wrapping themselves in a dead leaf on the ground. In spring, the caterpillars emerge and eat fresh leaves for two to four weeks before pupating. They will emerge as adults just about the time that the Monarchs are returning from the south.
The Monarchs famously migrate to Mexico, undertaking a journey of several thousand miles. It is a journey fraught with peril, made more difficult every year by the intursions of humans into the landscape, more habitat loss, more cars, more pesticides. Once in Mexico, the Monarchs are concentrated in one of Mexico’s poorest areas, where their winter habitat is under severe threat from slash-and-burn farming and logging. Monarchs are now listed as a species of concern.
Sue Halpern, author of Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly notes that ironically, the North American Free Trade Agreement chose the monarch as its symbol, because it, too, crosses among the continent’s three nations. But the poor environmental practices that NAFTA encourages may harm the monarch’s chances for future survival.
I strolled around the garden and noticed that the Monarchs were visiting other plants as well, especially the sunflowers and the buddlia flowers. As I watched, a line of Canada Geese flew overhead, the first I’ve observed this fall. Soon they will be heading south and the Monarchs will begin their long journey as well. I pray that many of their descendants will return safely in the spring.