Tag Archives: milkweed

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.

Monarch Butterfly Metamorphosis Poster by Valerie Evanson. US$34.99 plus FREE shipping. Click this affiliate link to see it up close: http://amzn.to/2sUYsxP

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!

That First Monarch Butterfly Led the Way

My very first adventure with a Monarch butterfly was way back in the fall of 1982. I was a first-year teacher and had just started with a first-grade class at Timpanogos Elementary School, in Provo, Utah, USA.

Suzanne Tilton at Timpanogos Elementary School

Suzanne Tilton’s first year of teaching. Timpanogos Elementary School, Provo, Utah, USA; 1982

Timpanogos was a two-story school built in 1938. The floors in the classrooms were wooden and there were no modern conveniences. I loved that classroom, though, because large windows covered the east wall and I had a lovely view of Mount Timpanogos from my desk: verdant green in spring; the color of a hay field in summer; ablaze with yellows, reds and oranges in autumn; and snow-capped in winter.

Mount Timpanogos from Provo

Snow-capped Mount Timpanogos viewed from Provo, Utah, USA • Photo courtesy of Eric Ward via Wikipedia

I was blessed that year with a mentor who was a seasoned teacher. To help me get ready for the arrival of my students she took me to buy teacher supplies, she shared her lesson plans with me, she helped me organize my classroom, and she brought me a Monarch (Danaus plexippus) caterpillar in a jar.

I had never seen a Monarch caterpillar, and I am not sure if I had even ever seen a Monarch butterfly. I set the jar on my desk that sat next to the windows so that we both could start our new adventure together.

I still remember that first day of school like it was yesterday. I made so many mistakes it is a wonder I survived! By the end of the day I realized I knew nothing about teaching. What was I thinking? I never should have taken the job. I was destined for failure! I walked into my mentor’s classroom and cried. She reassured me that I would eventually get the hang of things.

Monarch Caterpillar in J Position

Monarch caterpillar in the “J” positon, hanging by its tail and preparing to shed its skin for the last time and pupate into a chrysalis.

The second day of school one of the students observed that the caterpillar had eaten all the leaves that were in the jar and it was hanging from the stem that was left over. The students were very concerned for the caterpillar because they thought it was dying. I reassured them that it was what the caterpillar had to do to become a butterfly.

Each day I found myself feeling more comfortable and self-assured. The students were also getting adjusted and were settling down to the classroom routine. Everyday I could feel improvements in managing the students’ behavior. I followed the lesson plans. As for the caterpillar, it just continued to hang from the stem, but now as a beautiful, jade-green Monarch chrysalis.

Monarch Chrysalis

Elegant jade-green Monarch chrysalis with its gold highlights.

Every morning at 10:30 we had recess, which was the favorite part of the day not only for my students, but also for me, because we loved going outside to play.  There was a door in the classroom that led to the outside through which we used to leave and walk to the playground.

Recently-emerged Monarch Butterfly

Recently-emerged Monarch butterfly.

One day, on our return to the classroom, a commotion erupted. The kids were jumping up and down and shouting excitedly, “Look Mrs. Tilton! Look!” As I walked in the room behind them I realized what all the excitement was about. A beautiful orange and black butterfly was now hanging from the stem inside the jar.

I calmed the kids down and explained that the butterfly needed it to be quiet or it would be frightened by the noise. I also realized that I would never get the kids focused on the math lesson I had planned to teach that day.

I gathered all the kids on the floor by my desk so we could observe the beautiful transformation that had occurred. They wanted to talk about what had just happened, so I gave every child an opportunity to discuss and ask questions. “Will it be able to fly away?” “Can we keep it?” “Where will it go?” “What will it eat?” I myself was new to this experience and did not know how to answer most of their questions. The Monarch butterfly continued to quietly hang inside the jar.

At lunchtime, I ran to the media center to find a book on butterflies, but could not find one. In the teacher’s lounge I saw my mentor and asked her what I should do. She said to take the lid off of the jar and when the butterfly was ready it would fly away. She then brought me a book about butterflies that I could read to the students and a filmstrip to show them. (If you don’t know what a filmstrip is, look it up on Google.)

How to Raise Monarch Butterflies

Wish that I had Carol Pasternak’s wonderful book, How to Raise Monarch Butterflies: A Step-by-Step Guide for Kids back in 1982. Click here or on the photo for book details and to order your own copy.

The rest of that day we learned more about Monarch butterflies. We learned that they actually start life as an egg. We learned that Monarch caterpillars only eat Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) plants. We were amazed to find out that the Monarch butterflies were heading south to Mexico for the winter. We discovered that our Monarch was a female. We wrote a classroom story about our female Monarch and the children enjoyed drawing pictures of our beautiful butterfly.

Then something magical happened. The Monarch came out of the jar and flew towards the windows. The students screamed with delight, “Look, look, look!” The children jumped from their desks and ran over to get closer to the butterfly. I walked over to the large window and pulled it down to open. We then watched that magnificent Monarch gracefully fly outside and start her southward journey.

Monarch Butterfly on the Wing

Monarch butterfly on the wing. • Photo courtesy of Margot Leandro. Copyright © 2011 by Margot Leandro. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

That day the orange and black butterfly taught me a lesson. She taught me how to be a better teacher. I witnessed the excitement on my students’ faces as they discovered something new and experienced the joy of learning. Children need real-life experiences to be able to connect to the things they read about in books and see on the internet. They need to make connections to their world before they can write about them.

I hung the pictures of their butterflies on the windows and pinned their story to the bulletin board for the parents to enjoy for our first open house. How wonderful it was to observe these kids share their learning with their parents. Many of those parents who were doubtful about this first-year teacher were now reassured that their children would learn under my tutelage, and all because of a Monarch butterfly.

Suzanne Tilton at Timpanogos Elementary School

Suzanne Tilton (far right) and her first-grade class at Timpanogos Elementary School, Provo, Utah, USA; 1982-1983

Looking back on that experience I realize that it was very symbolic of that first year teaching those 26 first graders. I struggled to become an effective teacher, just as the Monarch struggled out of its chrysalis. It was the start to a very long teaching career, just as it was the start for a very long journey to Mexico for the Monarch. And just as the caterpillar changed into a beautiful butterfly, my students also transformed that school year into readers and writers and began their long careers as life-long learners.

Butterfly Excitement in Chapel Hill NC

Butterfly Excitement in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA. The girl is holding a Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) butterfly reared from one of Butterfly Lady’s Painted Lady Butterfly Caterpillar Rearing Kits

I continued to teach in public schools and after 28 years I retired and started my own business. I now raise butterflies, including Monarch butterflies. I bring my caterpillars and butterflies to classrooms and teach about the lifecycle of a butterfly. I let the kids hold and touch the caterpillars and butterflies. I experience over and over the delight on a child’s face when they get to hold a butterfly for the first time.

Caterpillar Rearing Kit

Butterfly Lady’s Painted Lady Butterfly Caterpillar Rearing Kit. Click here to check current availability and to place your order.

I also make low-cost Painted Lady Butterfly Caterpillar Rearing Kits that I sell so that others can experience the joy of raising and releasing a butterfly.

Yesterday, I received an email from a teacher who had purchased one of those kits: “I am a first-grade teacher in Boise, Idaho, and we released our Painted Lady butterflies last week. I want to say how much I appreciate your gift. We loved watching them develop, then fly away. Thank you, Suzanne!”

I love being the Butterfly Lady and owe my humble start to a Monarch caterpillar that led me on my own metamorphosis and migration.

Plant Milkweed, Save a Monarch

Plant Milkweed! Save a Monarch!

Plant Milkweed

Female Monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on yellow Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica). • “Plant Milkweed! Save a Monarch!”