Year of the Pollinator Series – August: Monarch Butterfly

Presenting: Awbury’s 2018 series on pollinators– from wasps to wind! 

Monthly articles will correspond with our programming and our “Pollinators FOUND at Awbury Arboretum” art show and scavenger hunt.

Articles written by La Salle student and Awbury intern Dan Sardaro.

AUGUST 2018 – MONARCH BUTTERFLY

Monarch

Monarch – of the FOUND exhibit by Karen Singer Tileworks

For the past two months, we’ve focused on the beauty and importance of butterflies in our area, specifically the eastern tiger and the spicebush swallowtails. They are magnificent insects, and crucial pollinators in many ecosystems. But we can’t overlook one of the most iconic butterflies to inhabit our gardens – the monarch, or Danaus plexippus. A true nomad in every sense of the word, the monarch butterfly is a migratory expert and an essential pollinator to plants they meet.  Check out Karen Singer’s vibrant ceramic tilework showing a monarch sitting atop a New England Aster flower.

The monarch, a well-known pollinator not only in our area, but across most of North America, is an insect with a distinguishable coloring, making them easily recognizable in our own backyards. Their wings are a kaleidoscope of oranges, blacks, and whites, but while they may look beautiful on the outside, they contain a deadly secret on the inside. Monarchs are in fact poisonous, and their brightly colored wings scream “WARNING” to those trying to eat them. Female monarchs will lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves, a poisonous plant, but that doesn’t faze the larvae – after hatching, monarch larvae will chow down on the leaves they were birthed on. The toxins enter the larvae and will remain even until their metamorphosis into a butterfly. Animals that eat the monarchs therefore ingest those toxins, become very sick, and thereafter learn an important lesson.

Monarch Migration

Monarch Migration

There is one major thing that separates monarchs from the rest of the butterfly population however, and that is their mass migration. Each summer prior to the cold winds of fall, millions of monarchs across North America begin a trek of 3,000 miles to either California or Mexico. What baffles scientists is that these insects manage to continually follow the same route their ancestors took, sometimes even returning to the very same forest or tree in which they visited the year previous. When they get to warm refuge like the forests of Michoacán, Mexico, millions of monarchs will flood the sky, clinging to trees and covering the ground in a rippling, orange blanket. I would have to imagine witnessing the pure multitudes of butterflies dancing about a lush forest, and hearing the soft, collective flutter of their wings must be one of the greatest experiences.
Check out this breathtaking video of the last stop of the monarch migration.

Monarch Butterfly

Monarch Butterfly

The monarch’s favorite food sources are wildflowers. Specifically, bright, clustered patches of flowers are most attractive, including those that are open during the day and include flat landing surfaces for the butterflies to effectively get nectar. Since monarchs feed on a variety of different flowers, they are less threatened by lack of flowers and more vulnerable to the loss of their starting home – the milkweed. This plant, critical to the larvae’s beginning survival as we’ve discussed, is under threat due to purposeful eradication of the noxious weed. Urbanization and industrialized farming fuels that eradication. Couple that with climate change and deforestation in Central America, the monarchs are facing an uphill battle. However, there are efforts nationwide – organizations in Delaware, New Jersey and North and South Carolina to name a few – that help monitor and sustain the monarch. These butterflies are treasures to our ecosystems, and while they embody nature’s resourcefulness and endurance, they still need our help!

Sources:

“Butterfly Pollination.” Butterfly Pollination, United States Department of Agriculture, www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/animals/butterflies.shtml.

“Pollinators and Monarchs – Garden for Wildlife | National Wildlife Federation.” The National Wildlife Federation, National Wildlife Federation, www.nwf.org/pollinators.

“Pollinators.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/articles/monarch-butterfly.htm.

Sartore, Joel. “Monarch Butterfly.” National Geographic, National Geographic, 11 Nov. 2010, www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/m/monarch-butterfly/.