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By Lisa Moore
Hometown Weekly Correspondent
The monarch butterfly, often called “the king of butterflies,” is an amazing insect.
Four generations of monarch butterflies are born each year. Depending on temperature conditions and food availability, the first generation of monarchs is born in February or March, the second generation is born in May or June, and the third generation is born in July or August. The first three generations begin as an egg laid on a milkweed plant by an adult female butterfly. In approximately four days, the eggs hatch and larvae, the caterpillar stage, emerge.
The adult will emerge from the chrysalis, feed on nectar, and live for approximately two to six weeks, during which time it will look for a mate, breed, lay eggs, and die.
It is the fourth generation, born in September or October, that undertakes one of the natural world’s great feats. This generation goes through the same process as its relatives in generations one through three, but as the caterpillar is in the chrysalis form during fall, the cooler temperatures change the adult that emerges. While the fourth generation monarch butterfly looks just like the other generations of monarchs, it has the unique ability to fly from the colder northern climates, traveling up to 3,000 miles to hibernating locations in warm southern locales like Mexico and southern Florida.
When hibernating, the butterflies form massive colonies on trees and use collective body heat to stay warm enough to keep from freezing. They survive on stored fat in their abdomens. This spectacular journey seems more fit for a bird than an insect as delicate as a butterfly, yet the sturdy monarch will make the round-trip flight back to the northern climates in spring to start the cycle again.
Monarchs hatch and feed on milkweed; it is the essential food for the monarch caterpillar. Though milkweed has toxins in it, they do not harm the monarch caterpillar. Rather, they are stored in the butterfly’s body, making it toxic to most predators. The bright orange and black markings of the butterfly warn predators of the dangers of eating the monarch. Other butterflies, like the viceroy butterfly, use mimicry, copying the colors of the monarch to trick predators into thinking they, too, are toxic.
As we start to feel the changes of fall approaching, be on the lookout for the magnificent monarch butterfly as it makes its journey southward on its long hibernation trek. If you care to attract migrating monarchs, you can make simple sugar-water feeders that can help provide adult monarchs with the food they will need to make the long journey south.
To learn more about these amazing insects, visit www.learnaboutnature.com.