Everything you want to know about the Monarch butterfly

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If there's one lady who knows her Monarch butterflies it's Maria from the Butterfly Musketeers. She's the lady we teamed up with recently to give you the top fun facts about the wee butterfly. 

But as we got into the topic a bit more, and as more and more kids come along these school holidays to pot a swan plant and create a butterfly feeder, we thought it would be a good time to deep dive even further. That way everyone can play their part in helping the Monarch to survive. So in saying that, we put some frequently asked questions to Maria to get her expert opinion. 

Why is the monarch nearly endangered in NZ?

The monarch butterfly, or Danaus plexippus, is very popular here in New Zealand. However, the removal of the monarch’s habitat, especially where swan plants once lived amongst the nectar flowers, is occurring through the likes of large sub divisions being built and destroying the natural landscape. Less plants means less butterflies, it’s that simple.

What can we do to help?

Sow or purchase swan plants, it’s that simple. They are, vital for the monarch population to breed, so have the swan plants in a few areas in your garden. Avoid insecticides because they kill insects and instead go organic. Spraying toxic sprays disturbs the natural organisms in your soil, and risks disrupting the natural ecosystem that you and your garden inhabit. The following flowers are ideas of what to purchase and/or grow from seed in your garden both for the monarchs and for yourself to enjoy: Cosmos, Sunflowers, Echinaceas, Rudbeckias, Zinneas and Azaleas are rich in nectar and are great to have in your garden. Buddleia bushes are butterflies’ absolute favourite flower and butterflies are attracted to Petunias too. I particularly recommend Marigold flowers too as they are great to repel aphids and will help save your swan plants from being attacked. Spring flowers, such as Verbena, Cineraria, are vital for butterflies coming out of overwintering who are very hungry for nectar.

Why is the swan plant so important?

The swan plant is a very special plant as it’s the host plant of the monarch caterpillars and is the only plant caterpillars will eat. It’s also the only plant for the monarchs to lay their eggs on. Swan plants contain cardenolides, which is a nutrient inside the plant that helps the caterpillar form a chrysalis, and so is vital to the life cycle of the monarch caterpillar.

Can you feed your caterpillars pumpkin if you run out of swan plants?

Pumpkin is OK for emergencies but not recommended for the entire life cycle. It is best given in the last instar stage, ie at least ten days old or more than 4.5 cm in length. Any earlier than this and the caterpillars will not get enough cardenolides (nutrients) and will not be able to successfully transition to adulthood. Beware also that their frass (poop) turns orange!

Are swan plants poisonous?

Yes, but a child would have to eat 10% of their body weight of the plant to get sick, and it tastes extremely bitter. It is still recommended to supervise at all times or have your swan plants in a special area. Do not let your children touch the plant or caterpillars, as they could harm the caterpillar with their wandering hands, and get them to wash their hands after touching the plant as rubbing your eyes could also harm the child. The slight dangers of your child become sick outweigh the massive benefit of learning about the fascination of the life cycle of a monarch butterfly. Education is key when having swan plants around, teaching your children about the process without touching.

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How long do monarchs last for?

Average lifespan is six to eight weeks for summer generations and six to eight months for winter generations. Once the females and males have mated and the eggs have been laid, their job is done for the butterfly kingdom.

Why do new monarchs hang upside down when they have just emerged?

Butterflies hang upside down when they emerge from their chrysalises so that gravity can help them pump the fluid from their abdomens into their wings. This allows the wings to expand and dry so that the monarch can use them to fly.

Why is it called a chrysalis and not a cocoon?

Monarch caterpillars form a chrysalis which is the hard outer case enclosing the caterpillar where the transformation starts into a beautiful butterfly. Moths form a silk which is spun and made out of silk. This question is very common because everyone remembers reading “The very hungry Caterpillar” that states it’s a cocoon. This is only a story not a factual book. 

How can I tell a male from a female monarch?

Males have a black spot on each of their hindwings, which are scent glands. They also have thinner veins (lines) on their wings than female monarchs.

If you would like to know more about Monarch butterflies or Maria head over to www.thebutterflymusketeers.com or check out the Facebook page.

Images provided kindly by Butterfly Musketeers.

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  • Natasha M

    Hi, Ive been breeding monarchs for a couple of years. At the moment im strugglng with keeping the small ones alive when i have to give them a fresh plant to eat. By the end of my work day I cone home to none of it being eaten and most have fallen off and died, some did drown from water in a bucket and others just dying for no reason at all. Whats going on? I transfered them with a cotton bud.