the Monarch returns

I saw my first Monarch Butterfly in the garden about a week ago.  It sailed around the milkweed plants a few times and took off — perhaps it was a male looking for a mate.   However, yesterday a female Monarch butterfly flittered over the several swamp milkweed leaves laying eggs on a few as she went and then proceeded to try to suck up some nectar from not quite open swamp milkweed flowers.

Typically, Monarch females attach a single egg to the underside of a milkweed leaf, and then move on to another part of the plant or another plant entirely.

Typically, Monarch females attach a single egg to the underside of a milkweed leaf, curving their abdomen upwards to contact the leaf surface.  They then move on to another part of the plant or another plant entirely to lay more eggs.

Wings looking a little beat up, with bare patches of missing scales on the top surface -- it must have been a rough trip north.

Her wings are looking a little beat up, with bare patches of missing scales on the top surface — it must have been a rough trip north.  She probed many of the flowers, but I’m not sure there is nectar there yet since they are not fully open.

The late summer generation of eastern North American population of Monarchs are known for their round trip migration from U.S.and Canada to the Mexican highlands and back, a trip covering thousands of miles over sometimes arid land.

While the typical lifespan of a newly metamorphosed Monarch butterfly is about two months, butterflies that overwinter in Mexico live at least 6 months, in a state of reproductive and metabolic diapause.  They eventually awaken from their winter lethargy, leave their wintering grounds in March, and move north in search of flowering milkweed and begin to lay eggs.  Recolonization of the most northern areas of the Monarch’s range occurs over the course of two generations of butterflies, each generation moving north hundreds of miles after completing their metamorphosis.  The map below shows the time course of the migration this year.

Journey North - Monarch Butterfly migration spring 2014

Click on this image to bring up the original website, and then click on”animated map” at the bottom of the screen to see the steady northward progression of sighted adults and larvae for this year.  Map constructed by Journey North.

I was surprised to see that Monarchs were sighted in the Twin Cities area on May 9, having leapfrogged the state of Iowa, perhaps in one of the warm fronts that brought the warblers north this spring.  Those butterflies would not have found much milkweed or any flower nectar on which to feed.  I saw this happen a couple of years ago when we had a late spring and the monarchs arrived when the milkweeds were still only 10 inches tall.  This was the result of that bad timing.

This monarch caterpillar tried to complete its development on this tiny milkweed, which was growing too slowly to keep up with demand. Ultimately, the caterpillar failed to metamorphose to a pupa.  This photo was taken June 26, 2012,

A monarch butterfly caterpillar tried to complete its development on this tiny milkweed, which was growing too slowly to keep up with demand. Ultimately, the caterpillar failed to metamorphose to a pupa. This photo was taken June 26, 2012.  Timing is Everything!

Coupled with ever diminishing overwintering habitat that support fewer and fewer of their numbers, Monarch butterflies face a northward journey of many unpredictable hazards and climatic challenges.  It’s really quite amazing that enough monarch butterflies survive each year to appear in our backyards.

6 thoughts on “the Monarch returns

  1. I was out in the prairie this morning and the milkweed is there, but pretty sparse. There were a few Monarchs out there too, so that is encouraging. I planted four milkweed plants in my yard – going to expand that for next year by planting the seeds. So far no caterpillars in my yard.

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