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The Monarch Butterfly

I spotted my first Monarch butterfly this weekend which reminded me of yet another thing to keep an eye out for while visiting a Virginia State Park.  In Virginia, the most common butterfly I spot is the yellow swallowtail.  It is truly a delight to see the occasional Monarch during the summer. 

Each year, these butterflies travel very large distances.  They are one of the few insects capable of making transatlantic crossings.  Starting in the spring, they begin their Northward migration, and in the fall they begin a Southward migration which gives Virginia two seasons a year when Monarchs can be spotted (usually the beginning and end of summer).  It is during these migrations that the females lay their eggs for the following season.  The butterflies spend their winters in Mexico and Southern California.

The average Monarch butterfly lifespan is less than two months.  This means that a single butterfly does not make the entire journey of the migration.  Instead, the population is reestablished with newly hatched butterflies from eggs laid the previous season.  The last hatchlings of the summer will enter a non-reproductive phase known as diapause and may live for more than seven months.

Monarch butterflies feed on milkweed when in their caterpillar stage.  The Common Milkweedtoxins in this plant are stored by the insect which makes them poisonous to predators.  Their bright orange color is a warning sign that they are toxic if eaten.  During the winter, birds will kill many butterflies searching for ones with the least amount of poison.

These butterflies are pretty easy to spot in Virginia.  They are dominantly orange with black veins.  You will also see white spots around the edges of their wings.  This is yet another reason to make sure you bring a camera with you when visiting our parks.  You never know what unique creature you may find.  Monarch Butterflies can be spotted in all Virginia State Parks during the right time of the year.  Look for them near plants that usually attract butterflies.

Published: 06/29/2009

Great article!
- David Heltman, 08/06/2009


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