The Monarch of Butterflies

If gardeners held a contest to determine the most popular backyard visitor, there might be a tie between hummingbirds and monarch butterflies. Although they are totally different creatures, both brighten our summers with colorful displays, and both are known to sip nectar from favorite flowers. And their similarity extends even further. Monarch butterflies, like ruby throated hummingbirds, make a tremendous migration that belies their delicate appearance.

Monarch on a milkweed plant

Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) are the only butterflies that migrate 2,500 miles to warmer climates each year. They make this journey because the adults cannot survive North America’s winters, while the larvae cannot find food in the wintering sites. The food that warrants all this trouble is milkweed.

In fact, monarchs are sometimes known as “milkweed butterflies” because milkweed is the only plant their larvae can eat. They are picky eaters for a reason. Consuming the poisonous milkweed plant makes the larvae themselves toxic. That’s why adult monarchs don’t need camouflage; their flashy colors warn predators to leave them alone. This feature is common throughout nature.

Unsurprisingly, non-poisonous butterflies have “copied” monarchs’ patterns.  One noteworthy example is the viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus).  It’s pictured below, next to the monarch.

Can you tell the difference?  Look closely at the bottom wings.  The viceroy (left) has a black stripe — that’s how you tell them apart.

For more info on monarch butterflies, check out the links below.


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