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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.

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.

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