Traveling along the highway on a trip a few years ago, we encountered a large flight of bright orange and black butterflies traveling together and flying in the same direction.
They were monarch butterflies on a seasonal migration. Adult monarchs that have emerged late in the summer live as long as 8-9 months, something highly unusual for butterflies. As fall comes on, they begin flying from Canada as far as 2,000 miles through the U.S., into Mexico and Central America, often stopping at the same layover spots year after year. At their wintering locations, they frequently cover entire bushes and trees. Sadly, extreme cold in some of their tropical over-wintering locations has killed hundreds of thousands of them. When spring comes, the process reverses itself as monarchs head back to North America for the summer.
Monarchs are the state butterfly of Vermont and have long been a favorite of mine. Many other people feel the same way and even plant flowers specifically to attract them. The larvae feed on milkweed plants, devouring their leaves and tender new shoots. Not many insects do this since milkweed contains a toxic substance that sickens or kills most critters that eat it. But it’s harmless to monarch larvae. The plant toxin permeates their bodies as well as the mature butterflies that form from them later. The result is a butterfly that makes birds and other predators sick if they eat it and they quickly learn to leave it alone.
This avoidance pattern also benefits another butterfly nicely. Viceroy butterflies look virtually identical to monarchs, but are not poisonous. In fact, they are delicious. (According to an interview I recently had with a local bird.) However, predators that have munched a bitter, sickening monarch take one look at the viceroy and give it a wide berth.
Monarch eggs are laid singly on the underside of milkweed leaves, hatching in 3-5 days into a tiny worm-like larva that immediately begins to eat its host plant. Shedding its skin four times and attaining a length of about 2 inches, the larva then transforms itself into a hard-shelled, jade green chrysalis marked with a sprinkling of gold spots.
In 10-12 days, the chrysalis becomes transparent, splits open and a fully developed adult Monarch butterfly emerges in all its gold-orange and black glory. The early summer butterflies then lay more eggs, starting the life cycle over again.
There are numerous beliefs and legends regarding Monarch butterflies. The ancient Aztecs believed they were the spirits of fallen warriors, still wearing the colors of battle. In Canada, the Monarch is called “King Billy” because orange and black are the colors of King William of Orange, a monarch who ruled during the 1600s in England.
Blackfeet Indians believed that butterflies in general come to us at night, carrying our dreams. Legend also has it that black butterflies symbolize death, while white ones are the souls of dead children.
The Merry Monarch Butterfly Ranch website on Maui, Hawaii says “some beliefs about butterflies are that they carry messages from the soul directly to the gods, that they are signs of impending good fortune, and that they will bring conjugal [marital] bliss and joy.”
Monarch butterflies are certainly jewels of the insect world and in our fields and forests. So I say, “…make a wish and send it heavenward on the wings of a butterfly.” You never know what blessings may wing their way back to you.
Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click firstname.lastname@example.org to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.