Let’s learn about this amazing Illinois state insect!
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The life cycle of a butterfly
The life cycle takes approximately 30 days. The egg is the size of a pin head. Once the larva emerges from the egg, it will eat its egg! When the larva (or caterpillar) outgrows its skin, it will shed its skin which is called molting. The larva will shed its skin 5 times too! When the time is right, the larva will attach itself upside down to the silk pad it has spun, and the caterpillar will look like a letter “j”. It’s important to not touch the larva at this time. Soon enough, the last skin is shed, and you will see the pupa/chrysalis. While a miracle is forming inside the chrysalis, the last part of the life cycle is the adult butterfly!
Look how small the newly hatched monarch looks next to the dime!
You can see the molted skin left by the caterpillar.
Yes, monarchs migrate! In the fall, Central Illinois monarchs will fly thousands of miles to reach the the trees in the mountains of Michoacán, Mexico where they will hibernate for many months. These particular monarchs are called the super generation. Once it’s time to stop hibernating, the butterflies will fly north. From Mexico, the monarchs will start the life cycle. They will mate, and the female monarch will look for milkweed to lay her eggs on. The monarchs will complete this life cycle over and over again for up to 5 generations. These monarchs only live for 2-5 weeks, and they can make it all the way to Canada! Once the temperature starts to be cooler, then the last generation emerges. This generation is the super generation that fly all the way to Mexico. So 4-5 generations north, but only 1 generation to fly south. *Our friends at Forest for Monarchs gave us permission to use their hibernating pictures. You can support their mission at forestformonarchs.org.
Tagging for Mexico
Do you see the white circular sticker? The sticker is part of the Monarch Watch Tagging Program started in 1992 to learn about the migration. We can learn a lot from tagging monarchs such as migration peak days, where the monarch migrated to Mexico from, and more! To purchase stickers, go to monarchwatch.org. This picture is one of our very own member’s sticker! In 2020, our group tagged more than 1,000 monarchs!
Where do you look?
You will find monarch eggs and caterpillars most often underneath a milkweed leaf. There are times you will find eggs on stems or the flower part of the milkweed so look over the entire plant.
Monarch egg magnified
A lot of change happens!
We will sometimes say, the caterpillar must have a splitting headache! As you can see, the skin “unzips” from the bottom up. It looks as though the head splits open, but that is not the case. The amazing chrysalis has revealed itself, and now the butterfly starts to form inside. Did you notice the chrysalis turns transparent?? You will know when the time is near for the butterfly to come out of it’s chrysalis when you can see the beautiful orange, black, and white coloring of the monarch butterfly! The butterfly’s wings are small for a very short time, but then the wings get bigger as hemolymph (insect blood) is pumped through the veins while the monarch hangs allowing its wings to fully expand and dry. It can take many hours before flight takes place.
Male vs. Female
So you’ve spotted a monarch in your backyard, but how do you know if it’s a female that will lay eggs? Look closely at the pictures. The male has special black spots on its bottoms wings that the female does not have. You’ll learn how to quickly identify your monarch the more time you spend watching.
How Can YOU Help?
The BIGGEST way to help Monarchs is to plant milkweed!! Milkweed blooms are beautiful and can add lots of color. Unfortunately, milkweed is not as plentiful as it was years ago which is due to the amounts of chemicals used today in agriculture and high amounts of use of weed killers. Along with milkweed, adding other beneficial pollinator friendly plants is great too! You can find plants at your local nurseries, but you can also find milkweed pods loaded with seeds in ditches!
Have fun with your habitat and make it a Monarch Waystation!
Once you have your monarch habitat planted, make sure to go to monarchwatch.org and register your area as a monarch waystation. You can spark conversation about monarch conservation by putting up this neat sign. Your efforts will help preserve this beloved species. Since last year, there have been over 30,000 waystations certified!
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