Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Life of the Monarch Butterfly

The Monarch Butterfly is probably one of the most well known butterfly in North America. It's beautiful, easily identifiable, and likely the most talked about as it is a species of Special Concern.  In fact, Monarchs are also the only insect to migrate over 2.500 miles each year!  More information on it's threats and status can be found on the Species at Risk Registry below.
Monarchs make their way into our lives every summer when they come up to Southern Canada and the USA.  During this short span of time there are 3 generations of Monarch.  Generation 1 is the group who migrated up from Mexico to breed, lay eggs then eventually have young form into a new butterfly.  The second generation is formed in the early spring.  They too will lay eggs, but the second generations life span only lasts generally the course of the summer.  Then, the third generation of Monarchs (fall generation), they leave us to winter in Central Mexico. 

I had the pleasure this past month to rear a Monarch from a caterpillar, to chrysalis, to butterfly and it was such a wonderful experience! It's easy to do with a little knowledge on the butterflies biology and can be a great way to teach kids about nature. Since the population is at risk, rearing butterflies can also help to ensure the chrysalis isn't predated giving the butterfly a better chance at survival.

I first found the caterpillar while walking along the lakeshore while I was doing my last days of field work in August!  I was so excited to find it because after seeing one of my assistants rear a butterfly, I wanted so badly to do it myself! So I took the little guy home and placed him into a bucket with a lot of fresh milkweed.  Milkweed is the type oh plant that these caterpillars rely solely on.

Within a few days, I noticed that my caterpillar had attached itself to the stem of the milkweed.  Before I realized that he was preparing to change, I got a little freaked out thinking that he may be dying!  But no, they actually just...hang there!

Before I knew it he had changed into a chrysalis.

Monarchs will stay in this form for about two week. During this time you notice very small changes to the Chrysalis.  First I started noticing gold-ish shimmering speckles coming up in a rim along the top.  A few days later these also started showing up near the bottom too.  During the last week, I could slowly see the outlines of a butterfly forming within with hints of orange coming through the green chrysalis.  Then suddenly one day the butterfly was totally evident inside.

The very next day the Chrysalis turned a dark black colour.  I got really worried at this point, a little worried that the colour meant the butterfly hadn't survived.   Luckily there was no odor to that I could smell, which according to multiple Monarch websites means the Chrysalis had failed due to something called "black death syndrome".  Luckily some butterfly friends told me to keep an eye on it and that there were two options. either 1) this black death syndrome was true and within the next 24 hours it wouldn't hatch, or 2) it was preparing to come out.

Butterflies likely emerge from their chrysalis in the morning hours with the sun.  My little guy....he had no perception of time and I completely missed it!!  While I was brushing my teeth and doing my nightly routine he decided to come out.  Believe me when I say that I almost shreaked. I was utterly surprised at 12am to suddenly see a butterfly in my living room that wasn't there 10 minutes before when I went into do my routine.  I will have to be much more vigilant at watching next year!

Butterflies take approximately 3 hours after emerging for a butterfly to dry their wings before they can learn and start to fly.  I took an old fish tank I had and created a little terrarium for her to stay the night.  It seems like my fishnets have a purpose now other than the Rocky Horror Picture Show on Halloween nights!  I also placed a few other things in there as you can see, such as: sticks to climb on, pieces of watermelon if she felt like eating (they contain natural sugars that butterflies need), and a sponge with some water.

The next morning I brought the butterfly to school.  My field assistant, Madison, had bought Monarch tags this year and so we made sure that this little gal didn't go without her tag!  The tag is placed on the butterflies underwing right in a certain cell.  To hold the butterfly you must make sure all 4 wing parts are held together.  The sticker is then placed into the cell and with one finger behind on the opposite wing pressed firmly but softly to ensure it is stuck and will not fall off.  We then wrote down the tag number, that it was wild but reared, and sexed it.  In this case, it's a female!

But how could we tell it was a female you ask?   Well, below you can see two photos. One is of my little butterfly (female) and the other is of an image I borrowed from the internet (a male).  The bottom one has something that the top doesn't, little black patches (where the little yellow arrow is pointing to).  Male butterflies have these patches on the veins of their upper wings because they contain pheromones, which are released in order to attract the females.

My Female Monarch
Example of a Male Monarch

After all the "data" part of the project was over, I took our little Monarch outside to let her go.  It took her about 10 minutes before she got really interested in wanting to fly!  Her first jump was a little bit of a doozy and she ended up in some grass, but her second try had her up and fluttering off into the distance.

Good luck flying south my fluttery friend!