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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 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.