monarch on milkweed

Monarch butterflies are commonly seen around Great Bay during the spring and summer months. Their bright orange wings make them fairly easy to spot and identify.  Monarchs have a wide distribution range and can be found in many places. Despite their small size, monarchs, like some birds preform long migration journeys.  If a monarch hatches from August to October, something unique happens. Once the butterfly hatches, their reproductive organs will not be fully formed. This occurs so the butterfly can stock up on nectar and use its fat reserves to survive the winter and reproduce in the spring.  They will travel to locations such as Mexico and California. In early spring females will return to the site they were born to lay their own eggs.  That is a lot of flying for a little butterfly! Monarchs are important pollinators and will only eat, and lay their eggs on a plant called milkweed.

A monarch’s journey begins on the leaf of a milkweed plant.  They hatch from a small white egg, smaller than a pin head! Almost 4 or 5 days after a female monarch at Great Bay lays eggs, it will hatch into a tiny black, white and yellow caterpillar. The caterpillar will stay safely on the milkweed and eat and eat and eat. Each time the caterpillar grows, its skin will shed, just like a snake.  After 10 to 14 days, the little caterpillar will become fully grown at just 2 to 3 inches long.

Once fully grown, the caterpillar will leave the milkweed plant to find a safe place to begin the second part a monarch’s journey, as a butterfly. Once a secure place is located, perhaps another plant 20 or 30 feet away, the caterpillar will attach itself by the tail end to the new plant. There, it will hang upside down in a J-shape for one day.  Next, the caterpillar will shed its skin for the last time and form into a lime green colored chrysalis. For 10 to 14 days the monarch will remain in the chrysalis while transforming into a beautiful orange and black butterfly. Just a day before the butterfly emerges, the chrysalis will turn clear, making the orange and black wings of the monarch visible.

After the butterfly hatches, it will have a long proboscis, which is a straw like feature used to drink nectar, making them successful pollinators.  Their eye sight will have improved and reproductive organs are formed. One hour after emerging, the brightly colored wings will be fully dry and ready to fly. Now the butterfly is ready to finish out a monarchs journey, and start the next generation at Great Bay.

-Kelsey Hanson, Staff Naturalist