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Flutter Into September

September 14, 2018

As summer ends, we return to school and prepare for fall. You may have purchased new clothes and shoes, school supplies and other items to prepare you for the new school year and the change in the season. Other animals also prepare for a change in season. For the monarch butterfly, soon a long journey will begin so the monarchs will spend the winter in a warmer climate.

Every spring in the Northern Hemisphere, monarch butterflies migrate from warmer climates to the north. There they lay eggs and a new generation of butterflies begins.

"Baby butterflies" don't look like butterflies at all. They are caterpillars. The caterpillars are called the larva of the butterfly. The caterpillars change (a process called metamorphosis) by making a chrysalis (a special kind of cocoon) and emerging later as a butterfly. The adult butterflies lay eggs and the cycle starts again.

Article Photos

Monarch butterfly chrysalises hang in a milkweed terrarium set up by Dr. Heather Kalb in her Triadelphia home, above. At left, the larvae, or caterpillars, feed on milkweed.

Eat Like a Caterpillar

Most caterpillars eat the leaves of plants. Can you think of leaves that you eat? Lettuce is a leaf. Spinach is, too. Kale, mustard greens, collard greens and other "leafy" green vegetables are also the leaves of plants. Monarch caterpillars do not eat lots of different kinds of leaves like we do. They only eat milkweed plant leaves. The milkweed plant actually makes the monarch caterpillar poisonous if vertebrate animals eat them. Most caterpillars need a specific type of plant to eat, so if you want monarch caterpillars, you need to plant milkweed.

Eat Like a Butterfly

Many butterflies like the monarch eat nectar as adults. The nectar is a sweet liquid found in flowers. In order to reach the sweet liquid in the flower, monarchs have a proboscis that is similar to a coiled straw. The butterfly extends the coil into the flower and "sips" the nectar.

Monarch butterflies will drink nectar from a variety of different flowers, so if you want adult butterflies in your yard, plant lots of native wildflowers and several different types of fruit trees because monarchs will also sip sweet juices from fruits.

Monarchs in Trouble

Monarch butterfly numbers have continued to decrease since the late 1990s. There may be many reasons for this decline, but many scientists believe that the habitat of monarchs is changing and that the milkweed plant, the only food plant of the monarch caterpillar, has been decreasing due to this habitat change. Humans affect the monarch's environment. Development of land for shopping malls, roads and other human activities may cause milkweed to be less plentiful. Invasive species such as Japanese knotweed may also compete with milkweed in its native habitat and cause the milkweed to be pushed out.

One of the things we can do to encourage monarchs to lay eggs in an area is to plant milkweed plants.

For more information about monarch butterflies, check into Monarch Watch ( and Journey North ( arch), two programs that track and study monarch butterflies.



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