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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.

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!

Top Five Butterfly Books

If you want to learn more about butterflies and how to attract them to your garden, I offer you five of my favorite butterfly books to add to your library.

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

The Life Cycle of Butterflies

The Life Cycles of Butterflies: From Egg to Maturity, a Visual Guide to 23 Common Garden Butterflies by Judy Burris and Wayne Richards. • Click Here or on the book cover to see more.

The Life Cycles of Butterflies: From Egg to Maturity, a Visual Guide to 23 Common Garden Butterflies by Judy Burris and Wayne Richards.

An excellent book to learn about the life cycles of common backyard butterflies, there are hundreds of stunning, full-color, up-close photos, all taken in a live garden setting. Each butterfly is shown from start to maturity, with sequential photographs of the egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and emerging adult butterfly of each species.

This rich visual guide to the life cycles of butterflies will appeal to wildlife enthusiasts, gardeners, teachers, and families alike. It has earned two national awards from Learning Magazine:
• Teacher’s Choice Award for “Children’s Books”
• Teacher’s Choice Award for “Product of Excellence for the Family”

Do Butterflies Bite?

Do Butterflies Bite?: Fascinating Answers to Questions about Butterflies and Moths by Hazel Davies and Carol A. Butler. • Click Here or on the book cover to see more

Do Butterflies Bite?: Fascinating Answers to Questions about Butterflies and Moths by Hazel Davies and Carol A. Butler.

This book covers everything from basic butterfly biology to their complex behaviors at every stage of life to issues in butterfly conservation. You’ll find tips on how to attract more butterflies to your garden, how to photograph them, and even how to raise them in your own home.

Arranged in a question and answer format, the book provides detailed information written in an accessible style that brings to life the science and natural history of these insects.

In addition, sidebars throughout the book detail an assortment of butterfly trivia, while extensive appendices direct you to organizations, web sites, and more than 200 indoor and outdoor public exhibits, where you can learn more or connect with other lepidopterophiles (butterfly lovers).

An Obsession with Butterflies

An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affaire with a Singular Insect by Sharman Apt Russell. • Click Here or on the book cover to read more.

An Obsession With Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect by Sharman Apt Russell.

Why are we obsessed with butterflies? Sharman Apt Russell reveals the logic behind our endless fascination with butterflies and introduces us to the legendary collectors and dedicated scientists who have obsessively catalogued new species of Lepidoptera.

A luminous journey through an exotic world of passion and strange beauty, this is a book to be treasured by anyone who has ever experienced the enchantment of butterflies. This is such a beautiful book to read and if you love butterflies you will love this book, too.

The Family Butterfly Book

The Family Butterfly Book: Projects, Activities, and a Field Guide to 40 Favorite North American Species by Rick Mikula. • Click Here or on the book cover to see more.

The Family Butterfly Book: Projects, Activities, and a Field Guide to 40 Favorite North American Species by butterfly expert Rick Mikula.

This was the very first book I read about butterflies and it remains my favorite. It’s such a fun book to read and you will learn all kinds of fun and creative activities to do with butterflies.

With stunning color photographs and detailed illustrations, Rick explains how to attract, safely catch and handle, and raise and support butterflies. He also discusses how to make irresistible habitats for butterflies and emphasizes the importance of basking sites, water sources, and shelter.

Did you ever want to hand-feed a butterfly? Have a live-butterfly tree? Feature butterflies in special celebrations? Rick explains all that and more.

Learn about Butterflies in the Garden

Learn about Butterflies in the Garden by Brenda Dziedzic. • Click Here or on the book cover to see more.

Learn About Butterflies in the Garden by Brenda Dziedzic.

This is a comprehensive book on how to attract butterflies to your garden, using both nectar plants and caterpillar food plants.

Brenda wrote her book based on years of personal experience attracting butterflies to and raising caterpillars in her small yard.

If you want to attract butterflies to your garden, Brenda will show you exactly what you need to do.