Posted by: oceannah | August 9, 2012

Milk for Monarchs Series 1-5 life cycle of a monarch butterfly

a few weeks ago the milkweed plants in my yard were filled with monarch butterfly larvae and I wanted to follow the metamorphosis and share it with my readers.

It turned out that there were five parts total and I though I would collect them all in one post for ease of viewing.  Below is the five part series as well as links to the original posts.  Enjoy!

Part 1

Milkweed (Asclepias species) of which there are over20 different varieties across the US, is the host plant of the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).  We are always pleased that the Monarchs visit and lay their eggs here!  Some years we’ve been able to watch the entire process unfold from eggs to pupal stage and finally butterfly.

The common Milkweed is the singular place a Monarch butterfly will lay her eggs.  This is no shock to those of us who enjoy Milkweed plants.  Either for their tasty cauliflower like buds or the strong cordage its fiber is capable of being turned into or the heavenly scent of the flowers in the summer night air.  Monarch butterflies will however sip nectar from other plants, but the larvae will eat only Milkweed.

Monarchs are well known for their lengthy migrations.  However they are not the only butterflies that do so.  Painted Ladies, Mourning Cloak, and Common Buckeyes as well as others butterflies migrate also.

Most Monarchs have a life cycle of about 6 to 8 weeks.  However, the Monarchs that overwinter/migrate to Mexico and Southern California live for 4 to 5 months.  There are no end of wonderful Monarch sites available for more information, but I’ve found that Monarch Butterly USA is a very nice resource and you can visit them for more detailed information.  Meantime, don’t kill the Milkweed the Monarch larvae are hungry :)

Part 2

Well, with little fanfare the caterpillars have hatched out and are merrily consuming the milkweed.  They were not alone though.

These communal feeders, the aptly named Milkweed Tussock Moth Larvae were clamoring for a milky bite too.  The thing about feeding on milkweed is that the caterpillars become toxic to birds (if  a bird were bird-brained enough to chomp down on a critter clearly displaying the DON’T EAT ME colors of orange and black trouble would ensue).  If the bird did not spit out or regurgitate a milkweed fed larvae it would likely die of heart failure.
In another few days the Monarch larvae should begin to form their chrysalis’ and pupate.  I hope to catch a few hanging here and there to share with you.

I stuck my snout in one of the lilies the other day for a nice full whiff of that tantalizing scent.  About half the day went by and I’d been on a few errands.  Then my daughter came home and immediately shrieked, “Mama, what the heck is on your face?”  I startled and thought there was a bug on me.  Turns out I’d been walking around all day with a kind of war-paint look unbeknownst to me.  Wondered why the postman looked at me funny?!  The pollen from the lilies goes on very easy but does not come off without soap and water.

This one is just arrived and has not had the first bite yet.  Very beautiful critters.

I have multiple patches of lilies and I like this one the best.  The white and the stargazers mix it up well I think…no need to cut them at all they are a standing bouquet!

The rains have arrived.  Much needed for certain, although we just pulled the garlic and would prefer it not get rained on.  Looks like the next two days will be dry so we can bundle the garlic and hang it to cure!  And….lots of basil too….pesto on this weeks menu!  What’s on the menu at your place?  How are you using the bounty of the season?  Your thoughts are always appreciated.
Part 3

Well, I did it…I broke my own rule…(not to interfere with nature) but hey, I did it for you!!  Actually the intrusion is minimal in the extreme, and in the end the butterfly will float off into the great wide world.  I brought in one monarch larvae and it’s been happily munching milkweed til last night when it began to do this:

Sorry about the glare, what you see is the larvae on the cotton top of a half gallon mason jar.  The larvae is beginning the process of pupating.

If you look very closely at the right side of jar you can see the silk that is being woven across the top to secure the chrysalis.  As of this morning there is not much more in the way of full ‘cocooning’ happening.  I’ve looked around outside and haven’t found any ‘in the wild’ yet either.  Stay tuned!

Part 3A

“Animal larvae eventually undergo metamorphosis, a resurgence of development that transforms the animal into a sexually mature adult”  –Biology, – Campbell

So there you have it from one of my favorite texts a simple sentence that lays it out far better than I could have.  My little charge has encased itself in a full cocoon now and hangs in waiting.  While I was outside yesterday I saw this on the underside of the peony though:

A ‘wild’ larvae beginning the process of metamorphosis.  This morning I went out to see the progress that was made and found a full cocoon already formed and also hanging in wait.  I now have two wee charges to monitor, although they will be re-’born’ a few days apart.  This process can take up to two weeks.  I’ll have to pay close attention since one of the main signs is the change of color of the chrysalis from jade green with golden specks to darker brown or orange-ish.

Here are the two side by side, on left is the peony cocoon on right is the mason jar.

I’m pretty excited to have these two side by side comparisons.  At the very least I’ll be able to watch two Monarch butterflies begin their journey.  It turns out that Monarch larvae do not set their cocoons on the milkweed plant and you can see why…there’s nothing left!  Monarch larvae are capable of eating their weight in a day while growing and molting prior to pupating.

What’s left of the milkweed looks a bit like a specimen from Morticia’s garden!

“After several molts, the larva encases itself in a cocoon and becomes a pupa.  Within the pupa, the larval tissues are broken down and the adult is built by the division and differentiation of cells that were quiescent in the larva.  Finally, the adult emerges from the cocoon…” – Biology, Campbell  What Campbell is saying here is that the larva does not turn into a butterfly in some kind of ‘transformer’ type way…more to the point the larva utterly turns to mush, primordial soup so to speak, and from that genetic material the butterfly is constructed.  Is it any wonder the metamorphic process is such a common theme is spiritual circles?  How many people are really ready for that kind of change?!  Am I willing to give up everything known and be turned to genetic soup in the Vita-Mix of life to awaken to transformation?!

I can hardly wait :)

Part 4


Imagine my surprise when I returned from the library to find my wee charge had released herself from the cocoon?  (I actually do not know if it is he or she, but somehow I felt she-ish about this one.)  Well that is exactly what happened!  In the photo above, you can see the wings are still not fully dry and in fact, I was quick to place the butterfly outside hanging upside down so she could finish pumping her wings and getting ready for flight.  I’ve been waiting and watching all day, but alas, I missed the big moment!  I read that they usually emerge in the morning, so I had anticipated it would happen very early tomorrow…wrong.

I placed the butterfly on the peony (which still has another cocoon yet to emerge) but then the butterfly crawled onto the jewel weed next door and seemed very content there.

I sat and watched and waited until I had to leave for a meeting.  Drat!  I did not get to see my little one fly off into the great wide world.  However, I was at a meeting with the college that my daughter will be attending this fall (all thirteen years of her)…so I was assisting a flight of a different sort you may say.

Here’s looking at you.  I was fascinated by all the ‘eye spots’ in the head area.  The actual eye has no white, but what a confusing bunch of ‘eyes’ for predators to contend with…if they are goofy enough to go for these colors in the first place.  But oh how amazing the adaptations are!

As if the Monarch was not sufficient, the abundant universe saw fit that a Spicebush Swallowtail should float by and sip some clover.  What a day!  I hope you enjoyed this little series that unfolded here in the backyard and kitchen.  There is magic and wonder all around us…we just need to slow down and observe it.  I hope you find some magic in your day today.



  1. This is such a complete and thorough sharing of the monarch butterfly that I am definitely sharing your link with my teachers at my school! Wonderful and your pics are great too!

    • That’s great Karen! I used to teach Environmental Education…what are you teaching?

      • Anna I work for the school system I am the IT person at our school however I pass on all sorts of great links and resources to my teachers!

      • that’s why your blog is so beautiful 🙂 I wish I had some more IT skills. *sigh*

      • Anna that is sweet of you to say I have been hard on myself for not making a custom template yet so your words are kinder than you know 🙂 By the way I think the content in the blog is way more important than how a blog looks…..I really enjoy reading yours you look at the world and see things I don’t even notice.

    • Karen I’m only sayin’ the truth dear! Truly, don’t be hard on yourself at all.
      I agree that content is the main reason people enjoy (or don’t) a blog…but making it beautiful is certainly an added plus!
      Thanks for appreciating the things I find interesting 🙂

  2. I have loved watching this series, this beautiful butterfly, unfold. Mother Nature blesses us in innumerable ways and has a wondrous sense of humour to boot – hence your war paint! Thank you for sharing this journey with us and illustrating it with your amazing pictures.

    • Thanks for joining me in this amazing emergence Joss. I agree, Mother Earth has a sense of humor…she always gets the last laugh 🙂

  3. Thanks for bringing the series all together. Loved watching the progress.

    • You are most welcome. It seemed to make the most sense once it was completed. Thanks for joining the monarch madness 🙂


  4. Great post anna!

    • Thanks so much, glad you like it.

  5. Thanks for putting it all together! 🙂

    • No problem Kaye, I never set out to do a series, but there you have it. It did seem to make sense to have it all in one place so folks can view the whole of it.

  6. This is unadulterated wizardry, Oceannah! Wow! This takes a dedication, tenacity and focus that would give one little butterfly a huge beloved base on which to start life.

    I am not exaggerating, Anna – this just put thrills through my body!

    Thank you for loving Nature and for sharing it with us.

    (13 years? College? Brilliant or what?)

    • Souldipper I’m thrilled you found the series rewarding! It is thrilling to be up close and personal with the living world. It doesn’t have to be a white-winged-buffalo, bearing a *message*. Sometimes, nah, many times the smaller the focus, the easier it is to focus on the gifts of Spirit. 13, yes. (community)College, yes. Brilliant, homeschooled 😉

      • Wow, MOM!! An adjustment coming up for this young lady, but sounds like it will be well in hand! Congrats to you.

  7. This is so magical!

    • Thanks I must agree it seems like magic to me, and I’ve done this before a few times…but I never tire of it.

  8. Wonderful!

    • Thanks Amy

  9. Anna, it would be interesting to know what species of Milkweed you have and whether you planted them or are they growing wild? – Kaye

    • All the milkweed here are volunteers and they are all Asclepias syriaca L. or common milkweed. I say they are volunteers as I’ve never planted them, but years ago when one randomly showed up on the farm I did in fact play with the lovely seed pods with my daughter…opening them up and marveling at the tight little package they made only to pull each one off an blow them into the wind. We called them ‘fairies’ back then since the little seed head looks like, well, a head and the beautiful silky tuft resembles a tutu floating on the breezes….oh those were some fun days! Now I’m writing curriculum that does not have fairies in it but more like: ‘chemical formulas, equations, stoichiomety, acids/base’ as well as ‘the algebra of polynomials’ and so forth…*sigh*

  10. […] Milk for Monarchs Series 1-5 life cycle of a monarch butterfly ( […]

  11. […] PR0… […]

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