Monarch And Milkweed: The Butterfly And Plant Dynamic

The Monarch Butterfly, considered by many to be the most beautiful of all butterflies, is the king of its jungle, as exemplified by its name. These butterflies are mostly active in February and March, when they come out of hibernation and try to find a mate. In March and April, Monarch eggs are laid on milkweed plants. The Monarch and milkweed plants have a very mutually dependent relationship.

Drop in Milkweed Growth Noted
Milkweed plants are vital for many insects, especially for the Monarch butterfly, because it provides a source of food and shelter. However, a decline was noticed in their growth and a study from 1999 to 2009 done in Iowa, noted a 90% decrease in common milkweed. A separate study showed a 58% drop in the density of milkweed. As a result, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has initiated a program called Milkweed Watch, to speed conservation efforts of this species that is native to North America.

Stages of Monarch Development
Monarch and milkweed go through four different stages together, as well as four generations in one year. The Monarch starts out as the egg, and then becomes larvae, most commonly known as the caterpillar. From there, it becomes a chrysalis or cocoon, and finally the adult butterfly.

Once the eggs are laid upon the milkweed plant, four days must go by before they hatch. The Monarch and milkweed spend all their time together. Once the caterpillar is out of its egg, it spends most of its time feeding off the milkweed. After two weeks of surviving off the milkweed, the caterpillar is fully-grown.

Born in May and June, the second generation of monarch thrives, eating the milkweed and using it as its home. In July and August (the third generation), the cocoon phase takes place. Finally, in September and October, the fourth generation is born when the butterfly emerges. Instead of dying within two to six weeks, the butterfly migrates to warmer climates. They will travel thousands of miles to places like Mexico and California. After its migration, the butterfly will live up to six or eight months.

Milkweed Essential to Butterfly
The Milkweed is a perennial plant; it is usually considered a weed, growing in the spring from both rootstock and seeds. Milkweeds were very popular in the Midwest, but the destruction to their habitat has decreased their growth.

When the Monarch butterflies feed off the milkweed, they also ingest the plant’s toxins. These toxins are called cardiac glycosides and usually provide benefits to the butterfly. Although this can normally hurt other species, the Monarch butterfly gains these compounds in their wings and exoskeletons, creating a defense mechanism. The Monarch, for example, ingests the toxins into its system, which eventually become harmful to predators. Most predators will avoid the monarchs for this reason.

One reason we travel is to see the beautiful nature that surrounds us. It is necessary to protect it in order for us to continue to experience Mother Nature.