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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.

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.

Raising Black Swallowtail Butterflies for Fun

One of my favorite butterflies to raise is the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes). It’s an easy species to attract to your garden. You just need to provide their host plants on which the females lay their eggs, including Dill, Fennel, Parsley, Rue or Golden Alexander and they will find them.

Eastern Black Swallowtail and Host Plants

The beautiful Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) butterfly and five of its host plants, including common herbs: Dill, Fennel and Parsley.

Can’t find these host-plant seeds locally? Order them here:
• Dill (Anethum graveolens)
• Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
• Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea)
• Curly Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
• Rue (Ruta graveolens)

Female Eastern Black Swallowtail ovipositing

Female Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly ovipositing an egg on Fennel. Look closely at the end of her abdomen. Can you see the cream-colored egg?

Eastern Black Swallowtail Eggs

Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly eggs on Rue and Fennel leaves. Collecting eggs and larvae from your garden or field and getting them home safely is easier with small condiment cups and lids. Click here to order a package.

Once you find the eggs or tiny caterpillars, remove the leaves or pieces of the plant they are on and place them inside a closed container. I like to use the salad containers from fast-food restaurants, but you can use any container with a lid. I use a push pin to punch air holes in the lid. Line the bottom of the container with paper towel or coffee filter. Be sure to provide plenty of the host plant leaves on which you found the eggs and/or caterpillars.

Salad Container Repurposed as a Butterfly Habitat

This easy-to-assemble habitat is nothing more than a fast-food salad container lined with a coffee filter. A few holes punched in the top with a push pin complete the project. These Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars are dining on Curly Parsley.

Caterpillar Condo

I call this my caterpillar condo.

Check on your caterpillars each day to make sure they have enough food to feast on. Once they get bigger you will need to empty the fecal droppings (known as frass) each day and add a new coffee filter or paper towel plus fresh food.

Caterpillar Frass

Caterpillars make a mess! Be sure to clean your cage every day to keep your caterpillars healthy and happy.

All Five Caterpillar Instars

Caterpillars shed their skin five times as they grow. These stages are called instars. In this photo, you can see all five instars of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar represented on my finger.

When they are ready to pupate, they will crawl to the top of the lid and make their chrysalis. Many people like to put sticks inside the container for them to use, but that is not necessary. However, it can be fun to see the different colors the chrysalis becomes.

Pupating Caterpillars

The caterpillar will crawl to the top and spin a silk girdle on the container lid before it sheds its skin for the final time.

Chameleon-like Pupae

Chameleon-like, the Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillar will pupate with colors that match its surroundings in order to camouflage itself.

It usually takes about two weeks for the butterfly to emerge from the chrysalis. You can then experience the joy of holding and releasing your new butterfly.

Eastern Black Swallowtail on finger

A newly-emerged Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly ready for its first flight.