Posts Tagged ‘Monarch butterfly’




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Monarch Butterfly on Giant Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea)

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While out hiking at Charleston Lake, I spotted this fuzzy, bristly caterpillar. When I got home, I looked it up in my Caterpillars of Eastern North America guide, by David L. Wagner. It’s the caterpillar of the Milkweed Tussock Moth (Euchaetes egle). As the name suggests, milkweed it the preferred food plant for these caterpillars.

The Tussock moth label is a misnomer, as these moths are classified with tiger moths. Another tiger moth caterpillar that you are probably familiar with is the Woolly Bear. For more on Woolly Bears, follow this link. A less well known relative, also common at this time of the year is the Hickory Tussock, linked here.

Some people have an allergic reaction, developing a rash, after handling these caterpillars, so it is not a good idea to pick them up, no matter how cute and fuzzy them may look.

Female moths lay large batches of eggs, and while the caterpillars are tiny, they live together on one plant before dispersing. Monarch butterflies are well know to also use milkweed as their larval food source, but Wagner notes that Monarchs tend to prefer young shoots, while Tussocks are content to eat older foliage.

The caterpillar will overwinter in a cocoon and emerge as a moth next year. Here’s the adult moth, below. Thanks to daughter Seabrooke for providing this photo. You will find the Milkweed Tussock Moth and a host of others in Seabrooke’s Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America. Learn more at her website, The Marvelous in Nature, linked here.


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Monarch and Blue Iris

Monarch and Blue Iris

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Owl Butterfly (Caligo memnon)

Giant Owl butterfly (Caligo memnon)

This snowy weather is a good time to revisit the Montreal Botanical Garden displays that we saw on February 21st. The most popular winter feature is probably the display of live butterflies. There are actually two separate areas, one for Creatures of Darkness and another for Creatures of Light.

We visited the Creatures of Darkness greenhouse first. The greenhouse isn’t really dark, but the light is somewhat muted. There are five species listed for this display in the flyer that accompanies the exhibition, but we just saw one, the Giant Owl butterfly (Caligo memnon), pictured above. There were quite a few of them though, and they were easy to spot.


Giant Owl Butterfly with wings open.

The photo above shows an Owl Butterfly resting in a dim corner with its wings spread. The genus Caligo includes about 20 species. It’s obvious that the common name, Owl butterflies, refers to the owl-eye pattern on the underwings. it’s quite convincing, with even a streak of white mimicking the glint of an eye. Caligo is derived from the latin for darkness. Owl butterflies prefer to fly at dusk, when there are fewer of their avian predators about. Caligos are found in Mexico and south through Central America to South America.

Below is a view of the second and larger butterfly exhibit room, which houses the Creatures of Light.


Creatures of Light greenhouse

What a wonderful experience! There are butterflies everywhere, big, colourful tropical beauties, floating, nectering, resting. The most eye-catching are the blue butterflies, Blue Morphos.

Common Morpho (Morpho helenor limpida)

Common Morpho (Morpho helenor limpida)

So far as I was able to conclude from research via Google, the Blue Morphos include assorted subspecies of Morpho helenor. The Blue Morphos are residents of the neotropical rainforests. Limpida is at home in Costa Rica, while peleides hails from Columbia.

Emperor Morpho (Morpho helenor peleides)

Emperor Morpho (Morpho helenor peleides)

When the Blue Morphos close their wings, they look like an entirely different butterfly, as their underwings are a richly patterned brown. The blue upper wings actually have brownish-grey scales, but their special structure reflects light in a manner that makes them appear blue.

Blue Morph (Morpho helenor)

Blue Morph (Morpho helenor)

We also saw a few ‘butterfly balls’, a mass of Blue Morphs congregating together. I found references online that say Blue Morphs engage in a mobbing activity meant to discourage predators, so perhaps that’s what is happening in these butterfly balls.


Blue Morpho "Butterfly Ball"

Most Morphos are blue, but there are a few other colours represented in the genus as well. Here is a White Morpho.

White Morpho (Morpho polyphemus)

White Morpho (Morpho polyphemus)

Here’s a neotropical resident you might recognise from your own backyard! It’s a Monarch, famous for its incredible migration from the rainforests north to Canada each spring as it follows the blooming of milkweed plants.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)


Butterfly hatchery

New butterflies arrive as a chrysalis and hatch in the greenhouse.  You can watch butterflies emerging within the glass nursery.  The Montreal Botanical Garden website has this to say about the sourcing of butterflies:

The butterflies in Butterflies Go Free come from butterfly farms in 10 different countries. Butterfly farms are a way to protect butterflies and their habitats by creating fair-trade, sustainable businesses that get local communities involved. By encouraging butterfly farms through the years, the Montréal Insectarium has preserved more than 50 hectares of rainforest in Costa Rica, the equivalent of 100 soccer fields.


Fruit Plate

The butterflies feed on fruit juices and you can watch an array of butterflies feeding at the plates set out around the greenhouse.

Emerald Swallowtail  (Papilio palinurus)

Emerald Swallowtail (Papilio palinurus)

The genus Papilio is also well represented in the greenhouse. Emerald Swallowtails are native to southeastern Asia, including Indonesia and the Phillipines. The green of the Emerald Swallowtail, above, is similar to the blue of the Blue Morphos in that it is not produced by pigments. Rather, it is created by the microstructure of the wing scales. They refract the light and give rise to blue and yellow visible reflections, which give the perception of green.

Great Mormon Swallowtail (Papilio memnon) male

Great Mormon Swallowtail (Papilio memnon) male

The colours of the Great Mormon Swallowtail are more subtle. Papilio memnon is a wide-spread butterfly, found from India through southern China and Japan and south. It has four male and many female forms, the females being highly polymorphic. Some forms mimic unpalatable butterflies and as many as 26 female forms have been recorded.

Great Mormon (Papilio memnon) female

Great Mormon (Papilio memnon) female

The Paper Kite is also native to the Philipines and Malaysia region of southeast Asia.

Paper Kite (Idea leuconoe)

Paper Kite (Idea leuconoe)

In the dim recesses of vegetation, I noticed this pair of Scarlet Swallowtails mating.

butterflypair Scarlet Swallowtail (Papilio rumanzovia)

Scarlet Swallowtail (Papilio rumanzovia)

Finally, here is a photograph of a group of Great Mormon Swallowtails forming their own butterfly cascade. The Butterflies Go Free exhibit runs at the Montreal Botanical Gardens until April 29th. It’s highly recommended as a beautiful and informative place to visit.

butterflywaterfall (Papilio memnon)

Great Mormon Swallowtails (Papilio memnon)

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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.


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Viceroy on echinacea 'Ruby Star'

If you want to attract butterflies to your yard, echinacea, or coneflower is a good choice to add to your border. On Sunday, I was able to photograph both Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and Viceroys (Limenitis archippus) as they visited the echinacea in the garden. These very similar butterflies are easily confused. Last September, I wrote about telling Viceroys and Monarchs apart and will repeat an excerpt here. You can read the full post and view more photographs of Viceroys and Monarchs by following this link to Royal Butterflies.

Viceroys are a bit smaller than Monarchs but the easiest way to tell them apart is to look for the black line that loops across the Viceroy’s hindwing. This line doesn’t appear on a Monarch’s wing. The line can be spotted whether the wings are open or closed. Viceroys aren’t closely related to Monarchs, but derive some protection from predators by mimicking the colour of the larger butterfly, well-known for its noxious qualities. It is now thought that the Viceroy may be equally distasteful to predators in its own right.


Monarch on echinacea 'Tangerine Dream'

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Of all the butterflies I saw in the meadow, the most eye-catching are surely the Monarchs and Viceroys, so I saved them for their own post. The Monarch (Danaus plexippus) must be one of the most recognised and well-loved of butterflies and it was lovely to see a dozen and more drifting majestically from flower to flower. Along with the Monarchs were an equal number of their look-alikes, the Viceroys (Limenitis archippus). I even found one of each species together on boneset, above.

Viceroy (Limenitis archippus)

Viceroys are a bit smaller than Monarchs but the easiest way to tell them apart is to look for the black line that loops across the Viceroy’s hindwing. This line doesn’t appear on a Monarch’s wing. The line can be spotted whether the wings are open or closed. Viceroys aren’t closely related to Monarchs, but derive some protection from predators by mimicking the colour of the larger butterfly, well-known for its noxious qualities. It is now thought that the Viceroy may be equally distasteful to predators in its own right.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus)

Monarchs are milkweed specialists. The larvae derive chemicals from feeding on the milkweed plants that make even the adult butterflies very distasteful to most predators. In studies, it was found that just one taste was enough to teach birds to avoid Monarchs and their mimics, the Viceroys, as well. The migration of the Monarchs is one of the wonders of the natural world. Each year, millions of monarchs from eastern and central North America migrate to the mountain forests of Mexico for the winter. In spring, they begin to move north, stopping to breed when they find milkweed.

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