Día de los Muertos and Monarch Butterflies

 In Mexico, Monarch butterflies are beginning to arrive this week in their over-wintering sites as people prepare for Day of the Dead celebrations.

Monarchs in Mexico

Overwintering Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) swirl and pivot in a sanctuary in Mexico’s Michoacán state. • Photo Copyright by Santuario Mariposa Monarca el Rosario. Used with permission.

Celebrations for Día De Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, officially start November 1 and end November 2, the actual Day of the Dead. However, this popular Mexican holiday can start as early as Halloween.  The festival honors the lives of deceased ancestors and coincides with All Saints Day and All Souls Day–Catholic holidays dedicated to honoring the saints of the church and those who have died, but who have not yet gone to heaven, respectively.

Monarch Parade

Dressed up to celebrate Dia de los Muertos and the return of the Monarch butterflies. • Photo Copyright By Mari Osa of Madame’s Journey Home. Used with permission.

Day of the Dead is not about being scared of the supernatural, but rather about remembering the spirits of their loved ones.

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Catrina figures, costumed female with a skeleton face, have become associated with the Day of the Dead, and are a prominent part of modern Day-of-the-Dead observances. • Photo Copyright by Danilo Rizzetto. Used with permission.

Rather than dressing in all black and mourning the passing of loved ones, Día De Los Muertos becomes a colorful and vibrant national remembrance of the lives of deceased relatives and friends.

While most people who recognize the international holiday decorate their homes and grave sites of their ancestors with altars, relics, candles, foods, and drinks favored by the deceased; many cities will join in on the festivities by hosting parades, community-wide ceremonies and street parties.

Day of the Dead Street Scenes

Celebrations with parades, music and dance at El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Preserve in Michoacán State in Mexico welcome the return of Monarch butterflies. • Photo Copyright by Santuario Mariposa Monarca el Rosario. Used with permission.

In Michoacán, Mexico, Día de los Muertos, takes on an even more interesting aspect. According to traditional belief among Michoacán’s Mazahuas indigenous community, Monarch butterflies are souls of ancestors who return to Earth for their annual visit.

The video below, “Muerte Es Vida” (Death is Life), follows a family from Michoacán’s Mazahuas indigenous community as they celebrate Day of the Dead. Native peoples explain how the Monarch butterflies always return a few days before the celebrations begin. Children were taught to set out water to welcome the butterflies because they were tired and thirsty from their travels.

I Remember Abuelito: A Day of the Dead Story

I Remember Abuelito: A Day of the Dead Story / Yo Recuerdo a Abuelito: un Cuento del Día de los Muertos written by Janice Levy, illustrated by Loretta Lopez, and translated by Miguel Arisa. • Click Here or on the book cover to see more and to order.

Whether you live in Mexico or elsewhere, you can join in the Day of the Dead celebration by sharing these stories with your children and grandchildren and by downloading the information sheet below.

Uncle Monarch and Day of the Dead

Uncle Monarch and the Day of the Dead written by Judy Goldman and illustrated by René King Moreno. • Click Here to see more details and to order.

Madame's Journey Home

Madame’s Journey Home by Mariosa. • Click Here to see more details and to order.

Click Here to download this Día de los Muertos information sheet to learn more.

The Fortunate Visit of a White Monarch Butterfly

Life on a remote island in the South Pacific brims with quirky surprises. We learn to expect most anything.

While driving to town, the random pig will dash in front of the car, causing us to slam on brakes. Sometimes, it’s a dozen pigs, or a pair of dogs, or a clutch of chickens; or a child, who seems to delight in the cheap thrill of racing across the road and living to laugh about it.

I live in Nuku‘alofa on the island of Tongatapu in the Kingdom of Tonga, which is 1,240 miles (1,997 kilometers) northeast of Auckland, New Zealand. A few days ago, a white Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus nivosus) found the Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) in my yard and began laying eggs.

White Monarch on Tropical Milkweed

A female white-form Monarch butterfly nectaring in Tonga on flowers of Tropical Milkweed, which also happens to be her host plant for egg laying.

I thought her wings were just old, worn, and faded, as butterflies can get as they age. But, on closer inspection, I realized that she was actually white in the places where she should have been orange. We have Monarch butterflies here in Tonga (read more here), but this is the first white Monarch that I’ve observed anywhere.

Female White Monarch

A female white Monarch butterfly in Tonga. She was skittish, not wanting me to photograph her up close outside. I caught her with a soft butterfly net and placed her in a pop-up cage inside. Eventually, she relaxed and I was able to shoot this pose.

According to Monarch Watch, white Monarchs have been found throughout the world, including in Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, the Hawai‘ian islands and on the mainland of the United States. Generally, white Monarchs are extremely rare with only a few being reported each year. The exception is in Hawai‘i where it is believed that as much as 10% of the population of Monarchs is white.

White and Orange Monarch Butterflies

White and orange Monarch butterflies side-by-side for comparison.

Monarchs are preyed upon by birds called Red-Vented Bulbuls (Pycnonotus cafer), which are quite abundant here on our island, as well as in Hawai‘i. Red-vented Bulbuls come from Southeast Asia and are relative newcomers to the islands of Polynesia.

Scientists suggest that predation is lower for white Monarchs and raise the possibility that the white form is more cryptic (harder to see) for the Bulbuls than the orange form. Consequently, they eat more regular, orange-form Monarchs than white-form specimens, increasing the relative frequency of the latter in places where both white-form Monarchs and Bulbuls range.

As I attempted to get a photo of the white Monarch, a huge Wasp (Hymenoptera apocrita spp.) was flying around which made me nervous, and an aggressive male Blue Moon butterfly (Hypolimnas bolina) kept chasing her away as he displayed his natural territorial tendencies. I realized it was going to be impossible to get a good photograph. So I caught her with my butterfly net and placed her inside a pop-up cage with some Milkweed (Asclepias spp.).

White Monarch

Final view of the white Monarch as she enjoyed her freedom in the garden.

After an overnight stay for observation, I released the white Monarch the next morning. She left me many eggs on the Milkweed in the cage, even laying on the screen, so I thanked her and set her free.

To my surprise and delight, she lingered all day in the garden and continued to come back, time and again, to nectar on the flowers and deposit eggs on the outside Milkweed. I sat on the porch and enjoyed watching her glide gracefully through the air as she flew back and forth in my yard.

Some cultures believe that a white butterfly brings good fortune. I don’t know about any fortune. However, the visit of this beautiful white Monarch brought me great joy and surprise. For that, I’m rich.

Tongan Monarchs

The Kingdom of Tonga is known for its monarchs, including King Tupou VI, the current sovereign and sixth reigning royal since the constitutional monarchy was founded in 1875.

Tonga's King Tupou IV on his coronation day.

Tonga’s King Tupou VI on his coronation day in 2015.

Queen Sālote Mafile‘o Pilolevu Tupou III is perhaps the most famous Tongan monarch of all. She was the first queen regnant and third monarch of the Kingdom of Tonga, an island nation in the South Pacific Ocean. Queen Sālote ruled nearly 48 years, from 1918 until her death in 1965, longer than any other Tongan monarch.

Queen Sālote brought Tonga to international attention when, during her only visit to Europe, she attended the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London.

Queen_Salote_in_London

Queen Sālote Tupou III of Tonga in Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation parade in London.

During the coronation procession, it began to rain and hoods were placed on the carriages of dignitaries in the procession. Since Tongan custom dictates that one should not imitate the actions of the person being honored, she refused a hood and rode through the pouring rain in an open carriage, endearing herself to spectators along the parade route as she smiled and waved.

But long before modern Tongan kings and queens, there was another monarch that came to Tonga: the Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterfly.

Map of Oceania

Where in the world is Tonga? The Tongan islands lie east of Australia and northeast of New Zealand in the South Pacific Ocean.

Monarch butterflies were first recorded in Tonga in 1863. It’s believed these butterflies flew or were blown thousands of miles to Hawai‘i from North America (or maybe they were serendipitously transported on ships, which seems more likely) and adapted to eat Crown Flower (Calotropis gigantea) leaves instead of leaves of Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.). They spread south through the islands of Polynesia to Tonga.

I started raising Monarch butterflies in Tonga in mid-June of this year when female Monarchs deposited eggs on Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) that I’d planted in pots. After two weeks, I had so many caterpillars I knew that I would soon run out of Milkweed for them to eat.

Monarch_laying_eggs

Female Monarch butterfly laying an egg on Tropical Milkweed in my garden in Tonga.

crown_flower

Crown Flower plant has thick stems and leaves. These latter provide excellent forage for hungry Monarch butterfly caterpillars. Their colorful blossoms emit a jasmine-like scent, heady stuff in a tropical paradise. Shrubs can grow up to 15 feet (4.6 m) high.

While driving down a street near my home, and to my utter delight, I discovered the largest Crown Flower tree that I’ve ever seen. This beautiful plant is called Crown Flower because the purple flowers were favored by Hawai‘i’s last monarch, Queen Lili‘uokalani, who considered them a symbol of royalty and wore them strung into delicate leis.

Crown-Flower Leis

Garlands of Crown Flower fashioned into leis.

Realizing that I’d found the mother lode of food for my caterpillars, I parked the car and walked to the gate where I called out “Mālō e lelei!” (“Hello!” in Tongan) to see if anyone was home. A five-year-old boy came to the fence. To my dismay, he didn’t speak any English. I pulled out a couple of Tongan pa‘anga (worth about 45 U.S. cents each) and pointed to the tree. He let me inside the yard and I walked over to the tree, cut some branches off and gave the boy the money. He smiled, then grinned, and exclaimed, “Mālō!” (“Thank you!”).

Monarch Caterpillars

Monarch caterpillars munching on Crown Flower leaves in a pop-up cage.

A few days later I retuned, called out again, and the little boy came running to open the gate and let me inside the yard. He was more than willing to take a few more pa‘anga off my hands.

Monarch Chrysalises Hanging from a Porch Railing

Monarch butterfly chrysalises, also known as pupae, hanging below a shell collection and the banister railing on my front porch.

I was able to raise about 70 Monarch butterflies in that brood. Some pupae I hung on the underside of the railing on my porch; others I gave away to teachers, children, and friends. What joy to be rearing Monarchs again!

Crown Flower Tree

The Crown Flower tree, marauded by multitudes of hungry Monarch caterpillars.

By August, I had not been back to the Giant Milkweed tree (another name for Crown Flower) since early-July. My husband and I had left Tonga for a month to visit family and friends abroad. Upon our return, the entire crop of Tropical Milkweed growing in pots on our front porch was completely gone and all of the dozens of chrysalises hanging from the railing had opened. There had been no sign of Monarch butterflies at our house since we returned.

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A female Monarch will use her feet to drum on a plant and “taste” its juices. This helps her decide if the leaf would be edible for her caterpillars and, therefore, if she has found a suitable place to lay eggs.

Yesterday, just out of curiosity, I drove by the giant Crown Flower tree and was stunned to see that many of the leaves were gone. I parked the car, walked to the gate and called out, but no one answered. The next-door neighbor informed me that no one was home. However, since the gate was left open, he thought it was okay for me to enter the yard. (He recognized me from previous trips.)

Monarch Chrysalises Hanging on Crown Flower

Beautiful jade-green Monarch chrysalises hanging from the giant Crown Flower tree.

As I approached the tree, I saw several female Monarchs laying eggs at the top where there were still some leaves. Fourth- and fifth-instar caterpillars were everywhere. I ran back to the car to get a plastic bag and began collecting as many caterpillars as I could reach.

Then I realized that there were also chrysalises all over the tree. I was truly giddy! It felt like I was a child waking up on Christmas morning to find presents under the tree. This Christmas tree was covered in beautiful gold-lined green ornaments!

As I looked closer I saw that there were also chrysalises on the ground. When the leaves dried up they would fall off of the tree, or as a caterpillar chewed the leaves, the chrysalis had nothing to support it and it would fall. I decided that I needed to rescue all the chrysalises that I could.

Monarch Chrysalises on Crown Flower leaves

Just a few of the rescued Monarch chrysalises on Crown Flower leaves.

I collected what I was able to find and reach. I also cut some branches that still had leaves on them so I would have food for the dozens of caterpillars that I had collected.

Before long, the little boy came running down the street in his school uniform. He was so happy to see me. I gave him a few pa‘anga coins in exchange for my gleanings.

As I left to take my bounty of butterflies home, we were both smiling and waving like Queen Sālote in London. More than half a century separated us in age, the boy and me. We couldn’t speak each other’s language. But we were a pair of happy Tongan monarchs: he, the king of the magic money tree; I, the queen of butterflies.

“See you again soon, Your Royal Highness!”

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A newly-emerged, male Monarch butterfly. Black spots on the lower wings are scent glands used to attract females.

Top Five Children’s Butterfly Books

It’s incredibly difficult to choose five favorite children’s books about butterflies. So many wonderful books have been written for youngsters. But, let’s give it a go!

For your convenience, I’ve included links so that you can read more about each volume, including reviews, at Amazon.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle • Click Here or on the book cover for details.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.

Of course my all-time favorite children’s book about butterflies is Eric Carle’s masterpiece. What a classic!

This is a fun book to read, but it is not the best book to teach children about butterflies. After all, caterpillars do not eat oranges, or apples, or chocolate cake. Neither do butterfly caterpillars make cocoons.

So I am not counting The Very Hungry Caterpillar in the top five best children’s butterfly books, but throw it in as a bonus with a very strong honorable mention.

Waiting for Wings by Lois Ehlert

Waiting for Wings written and illustrated by Lois Elhert. • Click Here or on the book cover for details.

Waiting for Wings written and illustrated by Lois Ehlert.

Uniquely designed and illustrated, this delightful story explains the life cycle of butterflies. Rich language and the author’s clever use of rhyme make this book appealing to young children.

Complete with butterfly and flower facts plus identification tips, as well as a guide to planting a butterfly garden, this butterfly book is like no other.

Gotta Go, Gotta Go written by Sam Swope and illustrated by Sue Riddle.

Gotta Go, Gotta Go written by Sam Swope and illustrated by Sue Riddle. • Click Here or on the book cover for details.

Gotta Go, Gotta Go written by Sam Swope and illustrated by Sue Riddle.

This is a very fun book to read aloud to children, beginning with the Monarch (Danaus plexippus) caterpillar chanting, “I don’t know much, but I know what I know. I gotta go! I gotta go! I gotta go to Mexico!”

In simple, jaunty text and pictures, children will learn about the magical transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly and its fantastic journey to Mexico.

How to Raise Monarch Butterflies: A Step-by-Step Guide for Kids by Carol Pasternak.

How to Raise Monarch Butterflies: A Step-by-Step Guide for Kids by Carol Pasternak. • Click Here or on the book cover for details.

How to Raise Monarch Butterflies: A Step-by-Step Guide for Kids by Carol Pasternak.

If your children want to learn how to raise Monarch butterflies, this is the book you must have.

Carol Pasternak, The Monarch Butterfly Crusader, has filled the book with colorful and detailed photos. She shares secrets to help you find eggs and caterpillars, then provides detailed instructions on how to feed Monarch caterpillars, as well as how to take of Monarch adults.

patient

A Butterfly Is Patient written by Dianna Hutts Aston and illustrated by Sylvia Long. • Click Here or on the book cover for details.

A Butterfly Is Patient written by Dianna Hutts Aston and illustrated by Sylvia Long.

Children will learn so many interesting facts about butterflies in this beautifully illustrated book.

From iridescent blue Swallowtails (Papilio spp.) and brilliant orange Monarchs to the world’s tiniest butterfly, the Western Pygmy Blue (Brephidium exilis)and the largest, Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae), an incredible variety of butterflies are represented in all of their beauty and wonder. A lyrical text makes this a beautiful yet informative and entertaining read.

My, Oh My–a Butterfly!

My, Oh My–a Butterfly!: All about Butterflies written by Tish Rabe and illustrated by Aristides Ruiz and Joe Mathieu. • Click Here or on the book cover for details.

My, Oh My–a Butterfly!: All About Butterflies written by Tish Rabe and illustrated by Aristides Ruiz and Joe Mathieu.

With a little help from the Cat in the Hat, Sally and Dick observe a small miracle in their own backyard—the metamorphosis of an egg into a caterpillar into a chrysalis into a bright new butterfly!

Along the way, beginning readers will discover how butterflies see thousands of images at once, drink nectar from flowers, avoid predators; and how they can be identified by size, shape, and color.

This book engages everyone with a fun combination of Dr. Seussian rhymes. It’s a delightful read, not only for children, but for adults, too.

Ten Little Caterpillars

Ten Little Caterpillars written by Bill Martin, Jr. and illustrated by Lois Elhert. • Click Here or on the book cover for details.

Ten Little Caterpillars written by Bill Martin, Jr. and illustrated by Lois Elhert.

I know, I was just supposed to name the top five children’s butterfly books but, technically, this is a book about caterpillars, and I just have to share.

It is written by Bill Martin, Jr., who wrote Brown, Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and is illustrated by Lois Elhert, who wrote and illustrated Waiting for Wings (featured above). Each caterpillar has its own fun adventure. “The tenth little caterpillar hung on an apple tree… until by and by, it became a butterfly.” The rhyming is delightful. There’s also a glossary filled with intriguing information about all ten of the caterpillar stars!

Well, there you have it: the top five–make that top seven– children’s butterfly books for your enjoyment and to add to your personal butterfly library.

A Love Affair with Monarchs and Milkweed

Oh, how I love to raise Monarchs! Those striped larvae that transform themselves into lovely butterflies fascinate me. Watching them munch away on Milkweed generates great joy and anticipation.

I’ve observed Monarch (Danaus plexippus) caterpillars morph into chrysalises countless times and am always mesmerized. It brings such pleasure to release butterflies that I’ve raised into my garden, especially when they linger.

Monarch Life Cycle

Stages of Monarch butterflies from caterpillar to adult. Top Row (left to right): Fifth-instar caterpillar traveling on a wire to find a good place to pupate. Caterpillar in the “J” position. Newly-formed chrysalis, still showing wrinkles. Middle Row (l-r): Completed chrysalis, also called a pupa. Chrysalis with nearly transparent cuticle signaling the eminent eclosure (emergence) of the adult butterfly. Freshly-eclosed Monarch hanging on to the remnant of its chrysalis. Bottom Row (l-r): Monarch filling its wings with abdominal fluid before they harden. Fully-fledged adult Monarch nectaring on a yellow variety of Tropical Milkweed.

If you want to raise healthy Monarchs, you have to have Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) and lots of it! Anyone who has ever raised Monarch butterflies has probably, at one point or another, run out of Milkweed. I’ve driven 30 miles to the nearest reliable supplier to replenish Milkweed for hungry caterpillars. It’s astonishing how much these caterpillars devour during their last two instars.

Consumed Milkweed

Monarch caterpillars that have eaten their Milkweed cuttings down to the bare stems.

The best way to get Milkweed is to grow it yourself. You have more control over the quantity and quality of your plants. That said, some species of Milkweed can be a chore to grow.

Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), on the other hand, is easy to grow from seed or propagate from cuttings. (Tropical Milkweed is also known as Scarlet Milkweed, Mexican Butterfly Weed, Bloodflower, Redhead, Cotton Bush and Wild Ipecacuanha.) To obtain seeds for Tropical Milkweed, Click Here for a selection of varieties and prices.

While Tropical Milkweed readily grows from seeds, if you already have stock in your garden, growing it from cuttings is the easiest and fastest way to expand the number of milkweed plants needed to feed your hungry caterpillars.

Tropical Milkweed Propagation

Tropical Milkweed propagation (left to right): Stem cuttings placed in potting soil. Plants after four weeks. Full-size, blooming plants after just eight weeks.

Once the Monarch caterpillars have stripped the Milkweed plant of all its leaves, cut the stems by pruning the plant and leaving about 5-6 inches (12-15 cm) of stems on the plant. It is painful, I know. But, this is actually a very good way to stimulate more growth and fullness of the plant.

Many Monarch experts also believe that by cutting back Milkweed, of any variety, it can reduce OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) infections in Monarch butterfly populations.  OE is a naturally-occurring protozoan parasite that can infect Monarch and Queen (Danaus gilippus) butterflies to the point of harming its hosts.

Even if you do not want to propagate new plants from stem cuttings, Tropical Milkweed should be pruned back on occasion, as it gets too “leggy” and ineffective at producing leaves and flowers. Also, I find that pruning Milkweed helps control and even eliminate Aphids (Aphididae spp.).

prunned

These four Tropical Milkweed plants have just been trimmed. Pruning will stimulate growth, help eliminate OE spores and create bushier branches with more flowers. The two small Tropical Milkweed plants at the top of the photo were grown from seed.

Tropical Milkweed Cuttings in 4-inch Pots

If you have potting soil and containers available, simply place the stems directly into the potting soil. Keep the soil moist until you start to see leaves sprouting from the nodes (the bumps on the stems where leaves used to be). At the same time, roots will be growing from the nodes underground. These are 4-inch (10 cm) nursery pots. Click Here to find similar pots.

You can also place the stem cuttings in water and soak them until they grow roots. The cuttings will grow leaves within a few days and roots in a week or two. However, you can transfer them directly to potting soil anytime. Just remember to keep the soil moist where you have planted the new stem cuttings. You can also speed up the growth by adding Miracle-Gro®, mixed half-strength each time you water. Click Here for Miracle-Gro®. Either dry or liquid works well.

Budding Milkweed Cuttings

Budding stems of Tropical Milkweed cuttings sitting in water and placed in a window for light. Don’t let the cuttings dry out.

I grow most of my Tropical Milkweed in pots. After two years, I retire them to a garden bed, removing them from their pots and trimming their roots lightly, because they can become root bound. One season, I grew 200 plants from cuttings. It was a lot of work but I was able to feed hundreds of Monarch caterpillars!

Milkweed Growing in a Tent

These Tropical Milkweed plants are growing in a screened-in canopy tent to prevent Monarchs and Queens from laying eggs. In the tent, I can also regulate how much water they get and can better control pests such as OE and Aphids. If these tents aren’t available locally, you can Order Here.

If you have a love affair with Monarchs and Milkweed like I do. There’s no cure. Accept it. Embrace it. Feed the passion and reap the joy!