“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” — John Muir
Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) are an interesting insect. Most live about 5 weeks in the butterfly stage, with three to five generations born every spring and summer; however, the last batch born does not breed the year it’s born but instead migrates to its winter home in Mexico, remaining there until the next spring, when it flies north to the southern United States to breed. The migrating generation can live up to 8 months. (Exceptions: Some monarchs live year-round in Hawaii and those born west of the Rockies may overwinter in southern California.)
As most people know, numbers of monarchs have decreased sharply in recent years, attributed to habitat loss in Mexico and the U.S., forest fragmentation (including the illegal logging of the oyamel trees in Mexico, which the butterflies use for roosting), climate variations, and herbicides that kill milkweed (asclepias), which is the only plant on which monarchs lay eggs and their larvae eat.
Last year, I think I saw one monarch butterfly. This year, since 23 August, I’ve seen dozens, in my garden (8 at one time is the record so far!), in other people’s gardens, in public gardens, near meadows and woods, and even on the beach. Still not as many as a few years ago, but enough to hearten me.
In this garden, I had already planted two Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed) a few years ago, and this year I added six more of those in various spots, plus two Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed) and three Asclepias incarnata ‘Ice Ballet’ (white, blooms, earlier than the pink ones). Next year I may add some Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed, which is orange in bloom).
I didn’t see any eggs or chrysalis on any of these, nor any monarch caterpillars, though the flowers attracted great golden digger wasps (Sphex ichneumoneus) and great black wasps (Sphex pensylvanicus) …
… and the leaves attracted the milkweed tussock moth (Euchaetes egle); most of the A. incarnata are covered in their yellow, black & white yarn-like larvae.
The adult monarchs I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks in my garden have been feeding primarily on Joe Pye weed (alternately known as Eutrochium purpureum or Eupatorium maculatum).
In other spots I’ve seen them on red clover, goldenrod, white aster, and pink phlox. And on sand on the beach!
And here they are today, fluttering around to the sound of blue jays:
Is it possible to become friends with a butterfly?
It is if you first become a part of nature. You suppress your presence as a human being, stay very still, and convince yourself that you are a tree or grass or a flower. It takes time, but once the butterfly lets its guard down, you can become friends quite naturally.
… I come here every day, say hello to the butterflies, and talk about things with them. When the time comes, though, they just quietly go off and disappear. I’m sure it means they’ve died, but I can never find their bodies. They don’t leave any trace behind. It’s like they’ve been absorbed by the air. They’re dainty little creatures that hardly exist at all: they come out of nowhere, search quietly for a few, limited things, and disappear into nothingness again, perhaps to some other world. ― Haruki Murakami, 1Q84