Monarch Butterflies

The monarch butterfly is a priority conservation species we know and love. Discover more about this remarkable species and how you can help support local populations near you.  

What Are Monarch Butterflies?

The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is one of the most well-known butterfly species in North America. The monarch itself, its lifecycle, and its migration patterns are studied in most elementary classrooms because this tiny creature teaches us so many things!

 

Habitat 

Monarchs are not only native to almost every part of North America, but they can survive across a multitude of ecosystems and levels of urbanization as long as they have their host plant, milkweed (Asclepias spp.), and nectar sources to survive their full lifecycle. 

 

Sunday Sustainability Fact: Milkweed is actually poisonous and distasteful to most animals, but the monarch utilizes this as a defensive mechnism by internalizing those toxic chemicals to make themselves less tasty to potential predators. 

 

Life Cycle

One of the most alluring aspects of a monarch is its metamorphic lifecycle. Beginning as a tiny egg, the butterfly grows into a large caterpillar and then transforms within its chrysalis from pupae to a butterfly.

How to Identify

Egg

A tiny oval-like egg, roughly the size of a ballpoint pen tip that is light greenish to yellowish in color, found on the undersidee of milkweed plants.

 

Caterpillar 

When first emerging the monarch caterpillar is white with a black head. At full caterpillar maturity, it is plump and patterned with yellow, black, and white stripes or bands, with two antennae.

 

Chrysalis 

The transformative home of the pupae is a light green cylindrical-shaped cocoon with small golden dots, usually found on the underside of leaves and plants. When the monarch butterfly is ready to emerge, the chrysalis becomes transparent.

 

Adult 

Vibrant orange wings (with stark black veins and white dots around the perimeter and tips), two antennae, and a black body with white dots is the monarch’s calling card. Males have slightly thinner veins and black dots on hind wings (females do not).

 

Lookalikes 

Viceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus) are common lookalikes for monarchs because of their similar deep orange color and black-vein wing patterns. However, viceroys are usually smaller in size, have darker and differentiating wing vein patterns, and have fewer white dot patterns than the monarch.

Why Are Monarch Butterflies Important?

Charismatic flagship species. A flagship species is a well-known and loved animal that serves as an ambassador for other species. Monarchs are this icon for the Lepidoptera order (butterflies and moths) and other pollinators. Their flagship status helps elevate conservation causes including pollinator protection, habitat preservation and restoration, environmental justice, and more.

 

Pollination. Monarchs are beneficial pollinators for our green spaces, food systems, and native plants. When they visit flowers for foraging, they’re helping to carry pollen between plants, producing seeds and fruit, and ultimately helping us maintain biodiversity.  

 

Ecotourism. Monarch migration is a remarkable natural phenomenon. In Mexico, hundreds of ecotourists travel to witness the skies, trees, and earth literally covered in butterflies. While this journey generates serious ecotourism revenue for these regions, the need for travelers to be conscious of their environmental, financial, and social impacts. Awareness is key for this type of ecotourism to remain sustainable and beneficial for communities near migration destinations.

 

Cultural significance. Monarchs aren’t just iconic, they’re symbolic. The monarch’s fall migration arrival in Mexico has been synchronized with the celebration of Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, for centuries. The influx of monarchs migrating is regarded as passed spirits returning to their living loved ones and honored as such. This is just one of the many ways monarchs hold cultural significance in North America and showcases a deep connection to the natural world.     

 

Species in decline. These remarkable winged creatures have been in heavy decline for decades, under threat primarily from impacts of climate change and human development. By learning more about monarchs, we can be better advocates for them too.

5 Easy Ways to Help the Monarch Butterfly

 

  1. Plant milkweed. Monarch butterflies can only survive if species of milkweed are available to them. They use milkweed to lay their eggs as adults, consume as caterpillars and form their chrysalis to mature into a butterfly.
  2. Grow native plants. Adding a diversity of nectar-producing plants in your garden and yard is essential for adult butterflies. While monarchs need milkweed, they also need a variety of nectar sources to thrive. 
  3. Avoid pesticide use. When possible, avoid using pesticides in your yard, never spray flowering plants (including weeds!) and only use as directed. 
  4. Restore native habitat. In addition to growing native plants, we can also help restore habitat to a more natural state. Removing invasive plants, reintroducing native species and maintaining high levels of biodiversity will help monarchs from declining further in populations.
  5. Be a monarch advocate. Follow our 1% for the planet partners, volunteer to be a monarch community scientist and simply learn more about the winged creatures around you.

Cited Sources

Monarch Butterfly. Texas A&M Extension.  

Monarch Butterfly Fact Sheet. University of Maine Extension.

Monarch Butterflies. Cornell Cooperative Extension. 

Monarch butterflies facing a crisis. University of Illinois Extension.

viceroy butterfly – Limenitis archippus (Cramer). University of Florida Extension. 

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). U.S. Forest Service.   

Monarch Butterfly Conservation in North America. U.S. Forest Service.