The Monarch Butterfly’s Understudy

Viceroy butterfly photographed by Jeff Zablow at the Butterflies and Blooms Habitat in Eatonton, GA

I have always recoiled when I hear that Viceroy butterflies ‘mimic’ Monarch butterflies. It’s true that Monarch caterpillars’ food are milkweed leaves, and the glycosides that are highly concentrated in the milkweed remain inert (unchanged) in the Monarch caterpillars, and the Monarch butterflies that eclose from Monarch chrysalises are fully stocked with those very same, disgustingly bitter glycosides. We are taught that this adaptation of the Monarchs provides them with excellent protection from predators.

It may or it may not be true that selection has caused the Viceroy butterfly to closely resemble Monarchs. Either way, birds learn early that this look signals, “Leave alone, don’t even try to eat!” Experience has convinced that Viceroys like this one, show zero wing damage from birds (bird-struck), because the birds’ mommies taught them early, avoid that sort of butterfly, or retch uncontrollably should you forget that lesson!

That band of black, across the middle of the hindwing of this Viceroy, enables you to ID as a Viceroy. Time in the field also teaches, Monarchs fly high, with elegant wing strokes, while Viceroys fly more like jet fighters, fast and with much diving and soaring, yet always some 8 feet or so above the ground. Monarchs Love to nectar on flowers, Viceroys rarely are seen upon flowers.

Viceroy butterflies do not treat us with one of our biggest life mysteries, that is, How do Monarch butterflies, that have never been to central Mexico, fly from Maine, New York and Ohio, thousands of miles, to the mountains of central Mexico??

Viceroys have their own charm. They are less commonly seen than Monarchs. They prefer to be close to their hostplants, Willow trees and shrubs, which puts them in the neighborhood of wetlands (marshes, swamps, ponds & lakes, and wet meadows (fens)). That fascinating habitat includes cattails, red-wing blackbirds, Baltimore checkerspot butterflies, aquatic turtles, muskrat and beaver, birders seeking sightings of egrets, herons, rails, storks and ducks. Poetic places that when found, protected from billionaires and developers, tickle our imagination and treat our eyes. It also puts Viceroys, here in the Southern USA, at home with alligators, as we saw in Laura’s Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge (Georgia) and in Neel’s St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (Florida).

This Viceroy here, seen in the Butterflies & Blooms Briar Patch Habitat in my Eatonton, Georgia, town affirms what some Butterfly field guide authors share, that the southeastern Viceroys are especially handsome, decked out in the stronger, more vivid oranges, black and white.

Understudy, the Viceroy? Nope. An authentic American Idol, no doubt about it.


Monarch Caterpillar on Asclepias Incarnata milkweed plant

Monarch caterpillar photographed by Jeff Zablow at at Raccoon Creek State Park

It’s  a good time to share this image of Danaus Plexxipus feeding on a healthy leaf of swamp milkweed  more formally known as Asclepias Incarnata. Why? you might be asking yourself.  As we review reports from NABA-CHAT contributors across the country, it has become apparent that Monarch caterpillars are scarce, verifiably scarce this year. Some people are so excited to find Monarch eggs and they are reporting their finds with much urgency.  For Monarch butterflies and caterpillars, it’s an unusual year for sure here in the U.S..

We do not know the gender of the caterpillar in this photograph. We do know that it was not a 2013 caterpillar and that it is an one of striking beauty. Central casting could not have produced a more handsome actor. All this in Nichol field at Raccoon Creek State Park in southwestern Pennsylvania.

We’ve posted quite a few Monarch butterflies and caterpillars, as well as a Monarch chrysalis, illustrating an important point in the Monarch Caterpillar life cycle. All would have presented a great challenge to Tiffany or Van Cleef and Arpels or Cartier or David Webb, if their jewelry makers were assigned to replicate them.