our wingèd, happy friends
Oh, to dance in the air
and float on the breeze…
Butterflies, small, delicate, and amazing creatures have been with us for 56 million years. They are named for the seasons in which they appear spring and summer, also known as the buttering season due to rich grass growth and luscious milk production at this time. These insects appear fragile but are hardly that. Butterflies are hardy survivors learning life lessons during their transformation from egg to adult. For this reason the Monarch butterfly became the symbol for my fourth grade classes….we were the Mighty Monarchs. My students entered fourth grade as fragile learners and over the year transformed ourselves into magnificent young people ready for flight. We began our year raising Monarch butterflies and referred to our experiences all year long. I would like to focus on the King of Butterflies…..the Monarch and its unusual life style.
For a butterfly to exist it must pass through a complete metamorphosis requiring four unique stages . In the first stage an egg is laid on a leaf – for the Monarch only milkweed will do, hence the name Danaus Plexippus or milkweed butterfly. Four days later a small larva or caterpillar chews its way out of the egg and eats the egg case. Its next meal is the milkweed leaf which is devoured at a rapid rate. The milkweed leaf contains a toxin making this larva poisonous to most of its prey. This stage lasts for two weeks. During this time the caterpillar will shed its skin five times as it grows 2,700 its original size. To prepare for the next stage the caterpillar climbs until it finds a spot it would like to hang from and spins a silk
button from spinnerets on its back-end. It then fastens its last pair of legs into the button and hangs upside down in a J formation. It will hang like this for about twenty-four hours before it begins to twist and turn shedding its skin for the last time and becoming a chrysalis. My students thought it looked like the larva was taking off its pajamas. The chrysalis is the structure in which the winged butterfly will develop. Depending on the temperature the adult will take between nine and fourteen days to develop. As it develops the green becomes clear and the butterfly can be seen inside. My fourth graders were often able to witness the transformation from larva to butterfly and were awe struck.
Our butterflies would emerge first thing in the morning and on numerous occasions we were able to witness this event. The photo to the left shows the first sighting of wrinkled wings and chubby body. The body contains waste accumulated during the pupal period. The waste is pumped into the black veins of the wings where it hardens making the wings stiff. Excess waste falls to the ground…a reddish liquid. The butterfly opens and
closes its wings and soon begins to flutter about the cage. By noon, the warmest time of day ( it needs to be 40 degrees or above for the adult to survive), they were ready to be released….nature’s perfect timing. Some years we tagged the butterflies and collected information such as location, release date, weather conditions and direction of flight for the Monarch Watch program out of the University of Kansas. We never got tired of watching these beautiful animals fly freely into their world.
Let’s take a quick look at the larva or caterpillar. The larva is transparent at its beginning. Over time it develops yellow, black and white stripes warning predators it is poisonous and camouflaging it among the milkweed plants. It develops filaments on its head and hind quarters it uses as whips to deter insects and to guide food into its mouth. How do you tell the head from the hind end? You look at the legs. The legs near the head, the true legs, are slender with small claws. These will become the butterflies legs. The chubby ones in the back are prolegs which have small hooks and will not appear after the larval stage. The caterpillar can not see well with its six pair of very simple eyes. To breath the larva has small openings along its body called spiracles. These openings take in oxygen and through a system of tubes transport it though out the body. The marvels of nature.
Now for the butterfly the creature that brings a smile with every sighting. The scientific order’s name for the butterfly and moth is Lepidoptera Greek for
scaled wing. Scales actually cover the insects entire body and perform several functions. They provide color that camouflage or warn predators of poisons , act as solar panels collecting warmth, and provide insulation. Two compound eyes are located on the head that see color into the ultraviolet range. Their sense of smell comes from special cells on their antennae. A straw like tube, a proboscis, extends from the head and into the flower to suck up nectar and water. When not in use the proboscis is curled up tight to the head. An insect must have six legs but the butterfly appears to have four but in fact has six. The two front legs are short and kept close to the body, the remaining two pair are longer and easier to spot. At the base of these hind legs are tarsus that grip the leaves. The base of the legs have specialized cells for smelling. My students were either amazed they smelled with their feet or totally disgusted.
The adult will live anywhere from two to six weeks. During this time it will serve as a pollinator whose major purpose is to reproduce. The female is ready to reproduce after about five days. She lays hundreds of eggs over several days. To tell a male Monarch from a female one must look at the lower wings for two small black dots on a vein. The male uses these pheromone sacks to release an odor to attract females.
What is amazing about the Monarch is that it is one of the butterflies that migrates (another is the Painted Lady). The rhythm of its migration is what fascinates me.
The migration cycle of the Monarch:
1st generation – 2-6 weeks : The Monarchs have spent the winter in southern California or Mexico. It is the Rocky Mountains that separates the ranges. As the days grow longer, usually in early March the butterfly’s head north to the most southern states of the United States looking for the first milkweed. Once found they lay eggs and die.
2nd generation – 2-6 weeks : This generation moves further north as the milkweed appears and repeats its cycle.
3rd generation – 2-6 weeks: The milkweed in now appearing in the northern United States where this generation lives out its cycle.
4th generation 6 to 7 months: This generation has moved to the most northern states and Canada and is referred to as the migrant Monarch. This generation will make a 3,000 mile journey south to overwintering grounds in El Rosario, Mexico or southern California depending on which side of the Rocky Mountains they are on. The butterflies return to the same overwintering sites as the generations before them. How do they know the way? This is unclear as yet but scientists suspect magnetic fields and or celestial bodies such as the sun, moon and stars may guide their way. They will join thousands of their kind roosting in pine trees waiting for longer days of sunlight to return north. The map shows paths not generations.
After fifteen years I had to change my class mascot, the Monarch, as I could no longer find caterpillars…..I used to find dozens at a time. The Monarch numbers are dwindling due to logging in their overwintering areas, loss of milkweed due to human development and farming, insecticides, and planting the wrong milkweed type that blooms earlier and is affecting the migration time table. My husband found a larva today that I am rearing to adulthood and will release. I will be looking for more. After 56 million years let’s not be the era in which this King of Butterflies disappears.
We have just touched the tip of the iceberg when thinking about Monarchs…..there is so much more to say about this incredible creature. If you are interested in learning more please go to monarchwatch.org This is a group that has studied the Monarch over many years, keeps data, sends reports (I got one last week) and has the most accurate information. They help the people of El Rosario, Mexico turn Monarch Watching into ecotourism trying to replace the business of logging which is narrowing the overwintering grounds and endangering the butterfly. Supporting this organization with dollars, planting the proper milkweed in our gardens, creating butterfly gardens, or spreading the word would be marvelous. My entire yard in a wild flower field…milkweed included. The last two weeks we have spotted several butterflies. I was able to stop a local park from removing the milkweed. Once I explained the situation the foreman sent all his workers out with pictures of milkweed instructing them to let it stand. My students earned money by collecting pop cans. The money was sent to Monarch Watch to buy educational materials for the schools in El Rosario for general study and Monarch education. Monarch Watch is an important organization doing important work.
For me I personally feel I have a special connection with butterflies, the Monarch and Painted Lady specifically. I have raised both in my classroom for over twenty years. Since early times many cultures, the Japanese, Greeks, Europeans, Native Americans, Aborigines to name a few, believed that butterflies are the embodiment of the human soul. I have had several interactions with butterflies that make me wonder.
When my husband’s father passed away we could not make it to the memorial only the internment. During the memorial we went to the nature center where we had dedicated a tree to my husband’s younger brother who had died some years earlier. We sat under this tree remembering both Dad and Matthew. As we sat two Monarchs sat on the limb above us. The stayed for about twenty minutes until we got up and walked to the car. They followed us to the car then flew off.
Sadly, a wonderful teacher passed away much too early from breast cancer. Upon returning home from her funeral I got out of the car and a Monarch flew into my face and stayed a bit. I felt she was at peace.
Brain cancer took my sister-in-law. My sister-in-law was a chef and a good one. During her last year she could not cook much so I made and mailed her chocolate chip cookies often. She loved those cookies and I wanted her to feel special. She passed in the early fall. After hearing the news I went out my front door (almost never do) and there on the pavement (most likely staying warm) was a Monarch. I was worried as it was a bit chilly. I picked it up and took it to the pine tree blowing on it to keep it warm. I placed it on the tree and it flew to my chest. This happened three times. I wrote her daughters about this and they seemed to understand.
My last experience was with my father. My father, after dying of old age, was interned in the church’s memorial garden. Through out the short service a Painted Lady Butterfly stood by my foot. Once the last prayer was said it flew off.
I see butterflies often and sometimes they are for me and sometimes they are not. There seems to be a difference for me in giving of a message and going about your business. We all have to make up our own minds as to whether nature speaks to us. For me I take great pleasure in thinking it does.