By Hayley Tompkins

During these challenging times and periods of change, we can take comfort in the words of Maya Angelou:

“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty”.

To highlight the beauty of change, consider the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. WPC’s bumble bee recovery team has spent a lot of time at Pinery Provincial Park in Ontario this summer looking for bumble bees, and while doing so, we can’t help but stop and enjoy all of the beauty that nature has to offer. We have been able to observe and photograph almost all of the stages of the monarch butterfly’s lifecycle.

Illustrated lifecycle of a monarch butterfly © Glogpedia, johnsons4

Egg

In the early summer, female monarch butterflies will find a patch of milkweed to lay their eggs on. In the photo below, you can see two small white eggs on the underside of the milkweed leaf. The eggs are roughly 1mm in diameter, and hatch within 3-8 days of being laid. Amazingly, during one visit, we were able to observe a female laying an egg on the underside of a milkweed leaf.

Can you spot the two monarch eggs on this milkweed plant? They are very small, and a creamy yellow/white in colour.

The larval stage of the monarch butterfly is commonly referred to as the caterpillar stage. Much like an adult, a caterpillar’s body is divided into three parts – the head, the thorax, and the abdomen. At this stage of life, the caterpillar spends most of its time eating. The first thing it eats after hatching is the egg case, as it provides valuable nutrients that the larva needs to grow. After consuming the egg case, the caterpillar moves on to consuming the milkweed plant. Monarchs are specialists and larvae feed exclusively on milkweed – this is why it is so important to plant milkweed in our gardens. Without milkweed, monarchs would cease to exist.

Read more about the importance of milkweed and some surprising facts here.

As it eats, the caterpillar’s body grows – and it grows so big, that it actually outgrows its own skin. To accommodate its growing body, the caterpillar will shed its skin in what’s referred to as a moult. The caterpillar will go through five moults, or instars (also known as larval stages) before it is ready for the next phase of life.

 A first instar caterpillar, that has just begun eating a milkweed plant. Note the tiny hole in the leaf, as well as a second egg beside it.

Pupa

After the fifth instar, a major transformation takes place in the pupal stage – the monarch caterpillar will leave the milkweed plant and will find a place that is well-camouflaged and somewhat high off the ground. It will knit a small silk pad to anchor it to a plate leaf, and from there it will hang upside down in a J shape for 12-48 hours before it pupates and forms a beautiful chrysalis. Monarchs are amazing at camouflage – their chrysalides are bright green with flecks of gold that reflect sunlight,making them very difficult to spot in the wild. In one to two weeks, the chrysalis will turn from green to clear, and the adult butterfly will emerge.

The monarch caterpillar hangs upside down in the characteristic J shape, and is preparing to pupate. Image by Sid Mosdell from Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

The monarch butterfly is almost ready to emerge as the chrysalis turns from green to clear. Image by Jerry Phons  from Pixabay.

Adult

When the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, it will hang upside for several hours while it pumps blood through the vessels in its wings in order to straighten and dry them out. Following that, the butterfly will away in search of nectar-bearing flowers that provide nutrients for fuel. Adult butterflies are generalists, and they will visit a multitude of flowers to drink the nectar.

 An adult monarch mid-flight over a milkweed plant.

While the life of a monarch involves many changes, the end result is beautiful. Like life, there is beauty at the end of the journey.

Do you want to learn more about butterflies? Stay tuned for our fall newsletter, where we will showcase some of our work with an endangered butterfly in Ontario. Sign up now to have the latest news delivered to your inbox.

Hayley Tompkins

Ontario Program Coordinator – Native Pollinator Initiative

Hayley has worked for the Native Pollinator Initiative in a variety of roles since 2016, and has had a passion for bumble bees ever since. Currently, she is completing a Master of Science degree at the University of Guelph, and is excited to be working as the Ontario Program Coordinator for the Native Pollinator Initiative.