The Amazing Monarch

Danaus plexippus is the odd-sounding scientific name of a stunning orange and black butterfly that has us all “aflutter” in the spring — the Monarch.

Danaus plexippus — the Monarch butterfly

The Monarch comes from the largest family of butterflies (Nymphalidae) with more than 6,000 species distributed throughout most of the world; a medium- to large-sized butterfly with distinctive orange and black wings with white spots. It’s a migrator, that is, every fall in early October huge clouds of monarch butterflies make the 2,500-mile trek south to mountains of Mexico where they live in hibernation for six to eight months. Then, in February or March, they fly north again to the United States where the life cycle of this paper-thin insect weighing in at less than one gram starts all over again. 

The Monarch is a milkweed butterfly, sometimes called the common tiger, wanderer, and black veined brown. One thing is certain — it’s the most familiar North American butterfly and the champion pollinator of plants and flowers. Movies have been made that follow the life of the monarch butterfly from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult and its annual migration from the mountains of Mexico to the United States.

In flight, the monarch zips along at a healthy 5.5 mph, which is remarkable when you think that the average person jogs at a speed of 6 to 8 mph. 

For us in Florida, we don’t always need to wait for migration season to enjoy a Monarch. Because of our warm climate and availability of host plants, Florida monarchs stay around all year as long as the temperature stays above freezing. Even though, in March and April as migrating Monarchs and other butterflies come through our lawns and gardens, there’s a “frenzy” of activity among butterfly lovers and gardeners who care that there’s plenty of native-grown Milkweed to serve as host plants for larvae as well as nectar for the adults.

On Earth Day 2020 we were reminded that urban development has eliminated much of the monarch habitat by turning wild fields of milkweed into housing developments or industrial parks and by the overuse of herbicides. To support our planet, volunteer gardeners and students alike make a point to buy seeds and plant milkweed. They sow seeds in pastures and un-mowed areas free of herbicides, or germinate them in advance. 

It’s important to plant native milkweed, so when you shop for pollinator plants at Lowes, Home Depot, Wal-Mart or any of our local nurseries, we suggest that you call ahead to be sure they are open and have “native” Monarch garden plants in stock. 

You can download the free Monarch Plant List from Pollinator Partnership, a nonprofit that benefits Monarch conservation.

To help preserve this beautiful creature for future generations, please visit the University of Florida IFAS Extension article Native Habitats for Monarch Butterflies in South Florida and the Save Our Monarchs website.

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