(Order Lepidoptera, Family Nymphalidae)
Danaus plexippus, female (photo by Tim Eberl)
(Kansas: Sedgwick County. Central Wichita, 37 ° 39’ 35”N, 97° 19’ 24”W. Flower Bush. August 29, 2011.)
Adult Diagnosis: Possibly the most recognizable member of the order Lepidoptera in North America. Both sexes are primarily red-orange, yellow and black striped. Black borders and white spots cover the length of the wing tips. Males and females are virtually identical in coloration and pattern except for pheromone patches (known as androconium) that are visible on the hind wings of the males (see below) and slightly darker striping on the females. Wingspans typically reach between 3-4 inches in length and adults weigh around 0.5 ounces. Antennae are slim and long and the front legs are typically reduced in size.
Male Danaus plexippus. Dorsal view (left) and lateral view (right) from: http://www.ohio-nature.com/monarch-butterflies.html and http://afunnyanimal.blogspot.com/2011/08/funny-male-monarch-butterfly.html)
Female Danaus plexippus. Dorsal view (left) and lateral view (right) (from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monarch_(butterfly)).
Adult Natural History: The Monarch Butterfly is easily recognized by its red-orange and black coloration and its tendency to “flitter” from flower to flower during feeding. While the larval Monarch Butterfly eats the milkweed plant (genus Asclepias), adults feed only on the nectar of various flowers. Because of the diet during its larval stage, the adult Monarch Butterfly has developed a chemical defense which makes them taste bad to predators.
Monarch Butterflies generally go through four stages throughout their life cycle; the egg, the larvae, the pupa, and the adult stages. After mating during the spring and summer months, females lay several hundred eggs on plants and eggs hatch within 5 days. The larva, (most commonly referred to as caterpillars), eat their own egg cases and then feed exclusively on milkweed. After two weeks of consuming and storing energy/nutrients, the larva pupates by hanging from the twig or leaf of the milkweed and encasing itself in an exoskeleton cocoon (also called the chrysalis). Many hormonal changes occur during the two weeks in the pupal stage and the caterpillar changes into the adult form, emerging in its recognizable red-orange and black winged form.
Monarch Butterflies have annual migrations in which they travel great distances, going from Mexico to Canada following weather patterns. The Monarch winters in the warmer climates of Mexico and southern California and migrates to Canada during the summer months. Migration trips are known to be as far as 2,000-3,000 miles long and take place ahead of the cooler weather changes (which would kill the Monarchs). Monarchs are often confused with the Viceroy Butterfly (Limenitis archippus) which has developed a similar coloration pattern in its adult form. The two species are distinguishable because of a transverse line across the hindwings of the Viceroy, which the Monarch does not possess.
Distribution: The species is widely distributed in Kansas, occuring in every corner of the state, particularly during the late spring months of the year and during migrations. Monarchs are one of only two species of milkweed butterflies in Kansas (the other being Danaus gilippus, the queen butterfly). Worldwide, Monarchs are known to live in Australia, South America, and in many of the island nations of the Pacific Ocean.
Confirmed distributions of Danaus plexippus reported on October 24th, 2011 in Kansas. Map created by http://www.learner.org/jnorth/maps/monarch_f11_all.html.
Habitat: Monarch Butterfly can be found in and around milkweed for the first three stages of the life cycle, while adults have the ability to fly and feed exclusively from flowers.
Diet: Adults feed on the nectar from various species of flowers. Larvae feed exclusively on milkweed of the genus Asclepias.
Larva of Danaus plexippus feeding on milkweed (copyright by Elizabeth Howard: http://www.learner.org/jnorth/monarch/spring2011/c033111_1.html).
Conservation Status: Monitored/Near Threatened
Monarch butterflies fly from Canada to Mexico each year.
Cascading Monarch Butterflies
Amazing Journeys: Monarch Butterflies - Mexico
Migration of the Monarch Butterfly: http://www.monarch-butterfly.com/monarch-migration.html
Monarch Butterfly: Journey North: http://www.learner.org/jnorth/monarch/spring2011/update033111.html
Monarch Watch: http://www.monarchwatch.org/
Davies, Hazel. 2008. Do Butterflies Bite? Fascinating Answers to Questions About Butterflies and Moths. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
Oberhauser, K.S. and M. Solensky. 2004. The Monarch Butterfly: Biology and Conservation. Comstock Publishing, Ithaca, NY.
Pringle, Laurence. 1997. Migration of the Monarch. Orchard Books, New York, NY.
Salsbury, G. A. and S. White. 2000. Insects in Kansas, Third edition. Kansas Department of Agriculture, Topeka, KS.
Submitted by: Timothy Eberl, November 2011