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The 'flyest' monarch of the realm!
Perhaps the best known of all North American butterflies, the Monarch (Danaus plexippus) has been in New Zealand since the 19th century and in Australia since 1871 where it is called, The Wanderer.
Also found in the Canary Island, the Azores and Madeira, the Monarch is an occasional migrant in Western Europe and a rare migrant in the United Kingdom where it is called the Milkweed after the plant it most frequently breeds and feeds on.
Interestingly the Monarch has many royal connections. It was given the ‘common’ name of ‘Monarch’ in 1874 by Samuel H. Scudder, mainly because, “it is one of the largest of butterflies, and rules a vast domain.” However, some say it was named after King William 111 of England, who ruled from 1672 to 1702 but as to why is anyone’s guess!
In 1780, Jan Krzyszrof Kluk used the Monarch as the type species for a new genus – Danaus after a mythical king of Egypt who was said to be the great-grandson of Zeus. The species name, plexippus, refers to a man named Plexippus, of which there were several in Greek mythology.
Since the species name and the genus name must agree in gender it has been suggested that Danaus is a masculinised version of Danae, Danaus’s great-great-granddaughter, to whom Zeus came as a shower of gold. This seems to be a most appropriate source for the name of this richly coloured butterfly.
Here is New Zealand many homes have milkweed or swan plant, as it is also known, growing in the garden and come summer homeowners delight in watching the pretty and delicate looking chrysalis develop and gift birth to this lovely butterfly.
The breeding process is relatively simple – grow a swan plant (milkweed) in your garden and before long a female monarch, looking for just such a plant, will lay its eggs there.
Most garden centres sell swan plants in season but while they are common enough in backyards, they can be expensive to buy as there never seems to be enough to satisfy demand. If buying from a nursery, do check that the plants have not been sprayed with insecticides. If they have they will be unsuitable as food-plants.
On the other hand seeds can be purchased from the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust. Plant them NOW (whatever the time of year) and grow them so you have lots of food for your Monarchs in the spring. Once the plant is established, save the seeds and grow plants forever. Click here to purchase seeds, or here for more information on growing your own swan plants.
You’ll find Monarch butterflies are most prevalent in spring/summer with the process from egg to butterfly being weather-dependent. Breeding times are often longer in the warmest regions particularly in Northland where they may be found for much of the year.
It takes about four weeks in the peak of the summer for Monarchs to breed. The egg takes 5 to 10 days while the larva/caterpillar and pupa/chrysalis each take about 10 to 14 days. Naturally, in winter, autumn and spring it takes a lot longer, if it happens at all.
When the pupa/chrysalis is ready to hatch, the shell will be transparent and the dark colours of the butterfly’s wings can be seen folded up inside. The transformation happens suddenly and it is possible that by turning away for a few minutes, you will come back to find the butterfly has hatched.
But how to tell a male from a female! Well, the male which is slightly smaller, has a black spot, or scent gland, on each of the hind wings. They also have thinner veins (lines) than female Monarchs.
Sadly this much admired butterfly does have some enemies, the worst being wasps which eat the larvae (caterpillars) and eggs until late summer, when the wasps’ diet then changes from protein to nectar.
Praying mantises will eat the caterpillars, as will the Predatory Shield Bug (Cermatulus nasalis). Ants will also take eggs.
Be aware, disease can be transmitted from caterpillars and will infect pupae so, if breeding Monarchs, ensure their food is kept in small, separate areas of the garden rather than a concentrated area. In this way, any disease won’t spread as rapidly.
If you have too many caterpillars, take some of them to where there is swan plant (milkweed) with no caterpillars. Don’t let your plants become overloaded with larvae.
Some people feed their Monarchs a sugar water solution but it is better to choose a natural diet such as the nectar from fresh flowers. In New Zealand there should be little need for artificial diets. What’s more, in cold, dry weather sugar water can form crystals inside the butterfly so a better form of artificial nectar is a heaped teaspoon of honey dissolved in half a glass of water with a drop of soy sauce added to give added minerals.
Sadly, the Monarch butterfly is not destined for a long life. After mating, the butterfly has done what it was created for – to continue the species. The males will die 6-8 weeks after using up all their sperm. Similarly the females will die after laying all their eggs which can be anywhere from 300 to 400.
Only a few of these eggs will mature and become butterflies. Some will become food for predators or succumb to parasites. But those that do hatch are nearly always a source of delight. Children will run after them, adults will nearly always note their presence with and awed: “Look, there’s a Monarch!” They truly are a regal butterfly.