The monarch butterfly is a small orange and black butterfly that feeds on milkweed. The monarch butterfly’s scientific name is Danaus plexippus. Like other butterflies, it grows an egg to a small yellow and black striped caterpillar (the larvae) to a chrysalis (the pupa) to a beautiful Halloween-colored adult butterfly. This process from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly is known as metamorphosis. This life process is unique to butterflies and moths.
In February and March, the oldest generation mates and then migrates north to lay eggs on milkweed plants. The eggs hatch within 4 days, and these eggs develop into caterpillars or larvae. These caterpillars munch on milkweed with gusto to grow bigger and stronger. Within two weeks, these larvae are ready to transform into chrysalises (pupa).
These pupa undergo radical changes to transform into butterflies that are released in 10 days. These butterflies then feed on floral nectar, water and fruit juice. These adult butterflies will survive for two to six more weeks. The monarch, like other butterflies and moths, uses a straw-like proboscis to suck up nectar from plants. They lay eggs and then die, starting the next generation of butterflies.
Not only does the monarch butterfly undergo metamorphosis, it also exhibits transgenerational migration. The monarch butterfly migrates from Mexico to Canada. That’s over 2000 miles of flight! It takes three generations of monarch butterflies to complete this phenomenal journey. These monarchs instinctively known where to go. They fly every winter to isolated mountain tops within the fir forests of Central Mexico to escape the cold winters of the northern United States. These monarch hibernate in the exact same trees that their ancestors hibernated in. Scientists are unsure how monarchs know which trees to hibernate in, but they find the right ones nonetheless.
A monarch butterfly goes through four generations per year. It may take three or four generations for the butterfly to complete its migration to its final destination. Can you imagine completing a journey that your grandmother or great grandmother began? Monarch butterflies then hibernate in the warmer climates of Mexico. After their winter migration, the monarchs must fly back to the United States to find appropriate nesting grounds because there are no milkweed plants in warmer Mexico.
Much Mexican tradition and folklore is devoted to the beautiful monarch butterfly. Because monarch butterflies travel to Central Mexico near the famous Mexican Day of the Dead, some Mexicans believe that each monarch butterfly holds a soul of a lost loved one. The monarchs are revered and safeguarded by Mexicans. Many monarch sanctuaries have been constructed in Mexico as Mexicans do all that they can to save the Monarch Butterflies.
For an amazing documentary on the monarch butterflies, check out The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies
To learn how to raise monarch butterflies yourself and with your children, check out How to Raise Monarch Butterflies: A Step-by-Step Guide for Kids