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From Egg to Butterfly

ImageAbout five weeks ago, I was gifted a potted Tropical Milkweed plant (Asclepias curassavica). Upon inspecting the plant I noticed a tiny Monarch egg. Monarch eggs hatch in approximately 4-5 days and are about the size of a pin-head. Once hatched, the tiny caterpillar, no bigger then 1/16th of an inch, set to devouring the milkweed leaves. Monarch caterpillars eat exclusively milkweed plants because they contain cardiac glycosides. These toxins do not hurt the caterpillar, but cause it to have a bitter taste. The bitter taste lasts the entire life of the Monarch and helps it to avoid predation.

Within two weeks, my caterpillar had grown to 2 inches long and was ready to form his chrysalis. To grow that quickly, caterpillars have to shed their skin up to five times before they can pupate, or become a butterfly. When caterpillars are ready to pupate, they find a solid surface from which they can hang upside-down. The caterpillars then produce a silk button, anchoring them to the surface. It takes about 24 hours of hanging in this “J” shape before the skin of the caterpillar splits open and the chrysalis emerges. The chrysalis hardens after an hour or two and turns a light green color with dots of gold. My Monarch was a chrysalis for roughly 10 days. On the tenth day, the chrysalis began to darken. After several hours of darkening, I was able to see the folded wings of the butterfly inside. Finally, the chrysalis cracked open and the Monarch was able to crawl out and begin drying his wings. Monarchs take a couple of hours to fully unfurl and dry their wings and when mine was ready, I watched him fly away. This particular Monarch was a male. One can tell a male from a female Monarch by the spots on a male’s hind wings.Image

My butterfly has quite a trip ahead of him! Monarchs migrate each year to Mexico for the months of November through February. Starting in March, they begin migrating north and breeding along the way. Each generation of Monarchs travel a bit farther north, with each season yielding roughly four generations. So the butterflies that migrate south this fall are actually the great-great grandchildren of the ones that migrated here in the spring. Keep an eye out in your own yard for Monarchs as they pass through on the way to sunny Mexico. –By Erica McGrath, Schrader Center

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