A Tale of Nature’s Living Gold

A few years ago, I was at a farmers’ market in Cary, North Carolina, USA, where I had a display of live Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterflies. Monarch chrysalises inside clear containers were available so that people could observe the pupa up close. One woman was quite intrigued by the beauty of the chrysalis. After looking at the chrysalis for a long time, she asked me, “How did you manage to paint those little gold dots on there?”

Monarch chrysalis in an emergence cup for close observation. The pupa is attached to the lid with tape, using the stretched silk button. A strip of coffee filter, about one inch (25mm) in width is taped to the bottom and side of the cup. In case the emerging butterfly falls, it will be able to climb up the coffee filter and spread its wings completely before they dry and harden in a crumpled form.

I suppose, if you look closely, the gold dots on a Monarch chrysalis do look like gold paint. It seems incredible that nature would adorn a living creature with a golden crown. Rick Mikula in The Family Butterfly Book, surmises that the early colonists of North America thought that the gold rim around the Monarch chrysalis reminded them of the king’s crown, so they named the butterfly “Monarch.”

Monarch chrysalis in hand. Notice the stretched silk button to which the cremaster held on during pupation. This chrysalis has been collected to keep inside, away from predators and parasites during its 10-day metamorphosis. The adult butterfly can emerge whether the pupa is hanging or lying on the ground or at the bottom of a cage.

A group of researchers in Germany did a careful study of the properties of these spots. They are not metallic (so they aren’t really gold), but the cells reflect light like metals do, giving them the appearance of being metallic. The gold is created by a combination of a carotenoid pigment and a hill-like structure that reflects light from the peaks to create the golden sparkle.

Monarch pupa camouflaged underneath a leaf of Scarlet Milkweed (Asclepius curassavica). Click Here or on the photo to purchase seeds of this valuable plant.

The scientists come to a few conclusions about the purposes of the metallic specks:
• Camouflage by reflecting colors of the surroundings and breaking up the shape of the pupa; they might also look like dew droplets.
• Warning coloration to predators that the pupa is toxic.
• Filtering particular wavelengths of light which might be harmful to the Monarchs.

Richard Stringer, in 2012, pioneered the use of various types of X-rays, MRIs and X-ray microtomography to peer inside a Monarch chrysalis and record the dramatic changes inside the chrysalis as it develops. His observations revealed that the gold spots on the outside of a chrysalis are ports of entry for oxygen.

Click Here or on the photo to read more about butterfly microtomography.

Interestingly, before those collecting and studying butterfly and moths became known as “lepidopterists,” they were known as “aurelians”. Aurelian comes from the Latin word for gold, which referred to the early collectors’ searches for golden chrysalises. The word “chrysalis” itself originates from the Greek word “chryso,” which also means gold.

A Monarch chrysalis just moments before the adult butterfly emerges. Starting a few hours prior to its emergence, also known as “eclosure,” the green and gold cuticle of the pupa becomes ever more transparent, exposing the colors of the wings.

Gold is a precious metal associated with wealth, grandeur, and prosperity, as well as sparkle, glitz, and glamour. Monarch butterflies truly are precious, natural living creatures that symbolize all of the above.

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Planting Milkweed in the Fall

The perfect time to sow native milkweed outdoors is right when Mother Nature does it, in the fall! Exposure to cold temperatures and moist conditions during winter will stimulate germination. Spring planting is also possible but artificial stratification of the seed is recommended to enhance germination. (Click here to read how to plant milkweed in the spring.)

You can purchase these native milkweed seeds directly from Butterfly Lady at http://butterfly-lady.com/marketplace/seeds.html

Choose your Area

Native milkweeds need full sun to grow so make sure the area you choose has at least least 6-8 hours of sun per day.

There is a reason the milkweed plants are not doing well in this butterfly garden. Milkweed needs full sun to thrive.

Prepare the Soil

Like all wildflowers, milkweed should be planted on bare soil. Remove existing plants and weeds and then rake the soil up to remove large rocks and other debris. Make sure there is no existing growth in the area before planting, so the milkweed seeds won’t need to fight underneath the surface to establish their roots.

I commandeered some neighborhood kids to help me prepare the garden bed.

Sow the Seeds

Be sure to wait until the first killing frost to sow the seeds. Space the seeds out one by one about 10-12 inches apart. If you have a large area and a quantity of seeds you can simply throw them out by the handful. If you do scatter them loosely by hand, come spring when the seeds start to germinate you may want to thin them out if they are extremely close together.

Do not cover the seeds! Simply press them against the soil with your hand or the sole of your shoe. If you’re seeding a large area you could also use a seed roller. Milkweed seeds require light to germinate, so if you cover them with soil, they won’t germinate come spring.

Soil is ready for the seeds.


Once you’ve pressed the seeds into the soil, give the area a good watering to set the seeds. Because you’re planting in the fall, you won’t need to water after this until early spring when the seeds start to germinate.

Walk Away

Now walk away and forget about them and let Mother Nature do her magic. As winter progresses, they’ll naturally be exposed to the eight to ten weeks of cold temperatures required for them to germinate when spring arrives.

Spread the message and wear this “Plant Milkweed” t-shirt created by Butterfly Lady. https://amzn.to/2PFvZn4




Take these Broken Wings and Learn to Fly

The words from Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” comes to mind whenever I see a butterfly with tattered wings. It always amazes me to see how resilient and strong these seemingly delicate flying creatures are.

We can take a lesson from a butterfly. Even with our own “broken wings” we can overcome our challenges and fly!

Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) on zinnia.

Help Migrating Monarchs with Fall Nectar Flowers

One of the surest ways to see fall-migrating Monarch butterflies is to plant flowers that attract them. Monarchs will drop from the sky for the nectar they need for energy during fall migrations.

Plant these flowers for Monarchs that migrate in the fall.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) on Lantana (Lantana camara). Click Here or on the photo for Lantana seeds. Photo courtesy Tiago J. G. Fernandes. Used with permission.

Monarchs will search for nectar plants the entire time they are traveling to their winter roosting sites in Mexico. Gardens can provide a place for the migrating Monarchs so they can refuel and continue their journey. Help Monarchs by planting flowers that bloom late into the fall such as the flowers listed below.

Asters (Aster spp.) are a favorite of Monarchs in the fall, particularly the New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). Other asters include Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve), Aromatic Aster (S. oblongifolium),  and Calico Aster (S. lateriflorum).

Monarch butterfly nectaring on New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).

Monarch nectaring on New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). Click Here or on the photo for New England Aster seeds.

Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), including Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) and Swamp Sunflowers (Helianthus angustifolius) are late bloomers and provide wonderful nutrition for migrating Monarchs.

Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia)

Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia). Click Here or on the photo for Mexican Sunflower seeds in orange, red, and yellow.

Male Monarch on Swamp Sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius). Click Here or on the photo for Swamp Sunflower seeds. Photo courtesy LuGene Peterson. Used with permission.

Many Lantanas are still blooming. I had several Monarchs stop in late October in my North Carolina, USA, garden to sip the nectar from ‘Miss Huff’ Lantana (Lantana camara ‘Miss Huff’).

Monarch nectaring on ‘Miss Huff’ Lantana.

‘Miss Huff’ Lantana. Click Here or on the photo for ‘Miss Huff’ Lantana seeds.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) is a wonderful fall blooming perennial and is one of the major nectar sources for the Monarchs’ trip back to Mexico. Click Here for Goldenrod seeds.

The brilliant purple-crimson bloom of Ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata) is very attractive to Monarchs. See some spectacular photos of Monarchs on Ironweed at the Flower Hill Farm Retreat.

Monarch sampling Giant Ironweed. Click Here or on the photo for Ironweed seeds.

Other great nectar flowers to plant for fall-migrating Monarchs include
Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea).

Monarch butterfly on a Purple Coneflower in the garden.

Monarch butterfly goes to work on a Purple Coneflower in the garden. Click Here or on the photo for Purple Coneflower seeds.

Autumn Joy Stonecrop (Sedum ‘Herbstfreude’) burst into bloom in fall. If left standing, they provide winter interest and food for birds.

Migrating Monarchs stop by the Flower Hill Farm Retreat to feed on the blooms on ‘Autumn Joy’ Sedum. Click Here or on the photo for ‘Autumn Joy’ Sedum seeds. Photo courtesy Carol Ann Duke. Used with permission.

Liatris spicata, commonly called Blazing Star or Gay Feather is a native perennial that makes a wonderful pitstop for migrating Monarchs.

Blazing Star (Liatris spicata) is a an excellent flower for Monarchs.

Blazing Star (Liatris spicata). Click Here or on the photo for Blazing Star seeds.

Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), also known as Giant Hyssop and Lavender Hyssop is a native perennial.

Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)

Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). Click Here or on the photo for Anise Hyssop seeds.

The Monarchs flock to the Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum).

Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum). Click Here on on the photo for Joe Pye Weed seeds.

The red blooms of  Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) not only attract migrating Monarchs but also migrating hummingbirds.

Monarchs on Cardinal Flower. Click Here or on the photo for Cardinal Flower seeds. Photo by the Insects of Northern Ontario

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Life Cycle of the Blue Morpho Butterfly

Four years ago I worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador at a butterfly exhibit. The very first day that I arrived where the butterfly house was located, a dazzling Blue Morph greeted me and flashed its wings as it flew by. I knew then that I wanted to raise this magnificent butterfly for the exhibit.

Unlike most adult butterflies that nectar on flowers, Morphos (Morpho spp.) feed exclusively on rotten and fermented fruit. This made it easy to attract the butterflies. I just set out mangoes and bananas. Before long I was rewarded with their presence.

Morpho females use a variety of host plants and will lay a single egg on the underside of a leaf. Upon hatching, the first instar larva devours its empty shell, which provides an initial source of carbohydrates and proteins before it begins to feed on the host plant.

It takes up to 12 days for the egg to hatch. During this time, the egg may change color many times to help camouflage them from predators.

I found the various stages of the caterpillar to be fascinating. As caterpillars grow, they get to a point where they must shed their skin before they can continue to develop. The larva has five stages called instars. The larva of the Blue Morpho is quite distinct in each stage.

First instar larva

Second instar larva

Third instar larva

Fourth instar larva

Fith instar larva. This stage lasts 11-14 days.

The caterpillars have unique ways to defend themselves from predators. Coloration at each stage provides them with camouflage. The older larvae have a gland located on their thorax that emits a strong order when threatened, which some describe as rancid butter. The hairs on their body also can irritate predators once touched.

When they are not feeding, the larvae remain motionless.

The entire caterpillar stage lasts roughly eight weeks before forming the chrysalis. Immediately before pupation, the caterpillar enters a pre-pupal stage and the entire body color changes to light green lasting approximately three days.

Pre-pupal stage

The larva will attach itself to a twig or large leaf, and will rest for about 36-48 hours while the chrysalis develops beneath the larval skin. The larval skin splits along sutures on its back to reveal the chrysalis. The pupal stage lasts approximately two weeks before the butterfly is ready to emerge, but in the wild can last to several months in order to time their emergence with the arrival of seasonal rains.

The green color of the Morpho chrysalis blends in with the natural foliage and helps it stay hidden from predators.

Once hatched, an adult Morpho lives for about two to three weeks. The entire life cycle of the Morpho butterfly from egg to death is approximately 115 days, or just under four months.


Morpho T-Shirt in Baby Blue. Click Here or on the photo to see more and to make it yours.