For a couple of years now I’ve been planting milkweed in hopes of attracting monarch butterflies. Just after Christmas I spotted several black, white and yellow striped caterpillars on my Arizona milkweed (Asclepias augustifolia) out back. I was so excited! Down on my belly I watched the caterpillars creep along the reedy branches and inch across the rocks below. When I posted pictures of my discovery on the SW Monarch Study Facebook page a quick response came from Gail Morris. This knowledgeable expert politely pointed out that my caterpillars were not monarchs after all, but their cousins, the more modest and sedentary queens. The queen caterpillar’s black, white and yellow stripes wrap the larvae in a slightly different pattern. Gail also pointed out that the queen caterpillar has three sets of filaments, where the monarch has two. Both members of the Danaus butterfly family share milkweed as a host plant during their caterpillar stage. Toxins in the milkweed make monarchs poisonous to predators, while the jury’s still out on the toxicity of queen butterflies.
Just a few days after I first spotted them, my caterpillars disappeared. I’ve been looking for the chrysalises. Apparently a caterpillar can travel up to 30 feet before settling down to form a chrysalis, stage three out of four in the butterfly life cycle. The chrysalises are tiny bundles that hang suspended by threadlike cremasters. Some enthusiasts bring monarch chrysalises from their yards inside to keep them safe until metamorphis begins. The pupae are returned to the outdoors when they begin to change color.
Emerging from the chrysalis magically transformed, the adult butterfly pumps fluid into its crumpled wings and waits for them to dry. No longer earthbound, the butterfly is then free to flit from one blooming plant to another feasting on nectar. Queen males focus on finding females who they seduce by rubbing their unique hairpencil appendages on the antennae of the female. This releases pheromones especially designed to entice the lady. Mating takes place, and the female lays her eggs one at a time, usually on milkweed plants.
Vivid orange adults now flutter around the garden in that graceful flight unique to butterflies. I don’t know if these are the caterpillars I saw, already in their new winged forms. These adults are feeding on the sweet nectar of English lavender, fueling up for breeding season. Did you know that the wings of all butterflies are covered with tiny overlapping scales, each a solid color? Such a miraculous insect!