Monarchs Fly Year After Year and for Thousands of Miles

Monarch butterfly (female, tagged) ovipositing, photographed by Jeff Zablow at "Butterflies and Blooms in the Briar Patch," Eatonton, GA

She was fully focused on depositing her eggs on Asclepias plants, milkweeds. The Butterflies & Blooms Briar Patch Habitat in Eatonton has hundreds of these plants, leaving her with lots of good leaf surface to choose from. Only the best for your Monarch caterpillar eggs, this September 2016.

Those caterpillars that successfully survive will then develop in chrysalises, and then emerge, as adults, female and male. They will feed furiously for a few weeks, and then, having survived all the rigors and dangers of the wild, take wing and ride to warm air currents, to their winter home. The mountains of central Mexico. My drive to Eatonton, Georgia is 693 miles, and Petra and I arrive some 14 hours later.

The flight of this female’s progeny to Mexico just amazes me. Thousand of miles, usually alone or in small group. No GPS, no maps. That tag on her left hindwing promises to provide future understanding, but we’ll have to wait

Year after year, Mexico to Eatonton . . . Eatonton to Mexico. My major? Biology. What do I think as I watch her eclose? I think, Amazing! Who doesn’t?


Monarch Butterfly at Raccoon Creek State Park

Monarch butterfly photographed by Jeff Zablow at Raccoon Creek State Park

The Monarch’s head and thorax are blocked from our view by the leaf of Asclepias syriaca,  or common milkweed. This peek-a-boo photograph reveals the wings of one of the most beautiful butterflies in the entire world. Sure, those of Costa Rica, India, China and Brazil include many breath-taking examples. Yes, the butterflies of Cambodia, Mongolia and Myanamar, and the less chronicled species of the African continent still remain largely unheralded.

Nevertheless, few butterflies register the maximum color richness and the striking contrast of North America’s monarchs. This female butterfly models her beautiful wings with the same poise, carriage and healthy richness that we see with runway models in Paris, New York and Rome. Is she in Brussels? Nope. This butterfly is in Raccoon Creek State Park in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

We here in northeastern U.S. states await the arrival of the monarchs. We approach mid-July 2013 and few have migrated up. There is real concern. Is this a cyclical thing? I believe it is. Monarch populations are so closely monitored by so many nowadays, that any catastrophic threat would have been registered.

Monarchs flew in the last remaining undeveloped lots in the Brooklyn, New York of my childhood. They laid their eggs on asclepias plants, just steps away from lifeless mobsters toasted in burned- out cars (those ’empty lots’ were the most convenient places for thugs to dispose of their rivals). Surely populations rise and fall, as they always have.

Loaded with cardiac glycosides and pyrrolizidine alkaloids our supermodel rests, unconcerned about birds, wasps, killer flies, and not dependent on makeup, hair, and other stylists.


Orange Milkweed, a Deep Reddish-Orange Wildflower for Monarch Butterflies

Butterflyweed Wildflowers at Raccoon Creek State Park

Butterfly Weed draws you in with it’s richness of color. Also known as Orange Milkweed, this deep reddish-orange wildflower is several weeks away from bloom time. Never super abundant, Butterfly Week is usually seen in small groupings, it seems to require certain favorable habitat conditions. The flowers remain open only for several days. When they do open they must pump nectar for an array of visitors. Tiger Swallowtails come by, Great Spangled Fritillaries dive in, Silver (White) Spotted Skippers come, Monarchs abound, and Hawkmoths (Sphinx moths) zoom in. The lovely and hardly ever seen Coral Hairstreaks also fanatically feed on Butterfly Weed.

Asclepias tuberosa provides nutrition to Monarch caterpillars as well. Our Monarch posts discuss how these Asclepias plants protect Monarch caterpillars from predators. Imagine being 100% protected from mischief makers?

I photograph only in the morning, because the light is best then. The heat of the day is hours away and there is little expectation of being disturbed by hikers and others. Butterfly Weed flowers, it is my experience, do not ‘pump’ nectar until about 9-ish AM. Apparently they cease pumping before 10:45 AM. as I’ve observed a dramatic drop-off of butterfly visitors after this time of day. I have yet to understand the intricacies of this timing.

I haven’t had good results with the hybridized Butterfly Weed offered by Nurseries and garden centers. I think that their soil requirements are specific, and even so when they’ve accepted my garden, they do not attract butterflies.