The Monarch butterflies are King of all butterflies. Majestic and mighty, they are probably best recognised by their luminescent colour and striking markings…
While I was working in Algonquin Provincial Park in Canada, I was fortunate enough to learn about the entire life cycle of the monarch butterfly (and even witness it for myself). Although the park is best-known for its stunning hiking trails, portaging and stunning lakes, much of the Park is also home to monarch butterflies during the warmer months of the year.
Life Cycle of the Monarch Butterfly: from Monarch caterpillar to Butterfly
Over several generations, the butterflies travel up to Canada and the North of the USA from Mexico (some butterflies in western USA travel to southern California), often to the same trees as their ancestors before them. The fourth or fifth generation of the insect then lay their eggs on the milkweed plants.
These clever butterflies have developed so that they lay their eggs and the caterpillars eat the leaves exclusively of the milkweed plant. Most animals and other insects don’t like the taste of the plant or are allergic to it and so the caterpillars and subsequently, butterflies thrive.
You know what I find weird? That butterflies don’t have any mouths- they literally don’t eat throughout their adult lives (but they can taste things through their feet)- I guess that’s why caterpillars eat so much… Around the end of the summer (September time), the last generation born in Canada and the Northern USA become butterflies.
These final lot of butterflies then make the full trip back to Mexico (they are the longest living generation). The journey is up to 3000km and, despite never having been to these places, they somehow know the way! The monarch butterflies are so amazing that they have even been bred in the international space station!
How do we know all this about monarch butterflies? A brief history of Monarch Butterfly Tagging
This was all discovered when a tagging system was developed in the mid-1900s by Dr Urquhart. This was such an innovative and new technique that in 1976, it appeared on the cover of National Geographic Magazine.
A little paper tag is placed onto the wing of the butterfly (don’t worry the butterfly isn’t harmed at all as it is only 2% of the butterfly’s weight and is placed onto the strongest part of the wing) and throughout its journey, if anyone chooses to catch and release it, they can note down the number and enter it into an online database.
Prior to the monarch butterfly tagging, no one knew where specific Monarch butterflies went each year or where they returned from. It was also discovered that some of them don’t go all the way down to Mexico but winter in Southern California. When our butterflies were fully grown, we each all released one from the resort where we were working in Algonquin National Park.
I’m not sure if my butterfly made it though as it was never found but I like to think it made it back to Mexico! (They fly at between 12-25 miles an hour so I guess they are pretty difficult to catch)! My supervisor found out that her butterfly hadn’t made the journey when a single wing was found with the tag containing the ID number.