Everything there is to know about monarch butterflies
Where do Monarchs Come From?
The Monarch Butterfly comes from the butterfly family called Nymphalidae (nymph-al-id-eye). These butterflies include some of the largest and brightest colored butterfly species in the world. The Monarch (along with the Queen and Solider Butterfly) is part of a Nymphalidae subfamily group called the Danainae (dan-ain-eye). The Danainae are milkweed butterflies which mean that as larvae (caterpillars) they only ate the leaves from milkweed plants. There are over 300 species in the Danainae subfamily and over 6,000 butterfly species in the Nymphalidae family total!
How to Identify a Monarch Butterfly
The Monarch Butterfly is easily recognizable. The stunning creatures have a wingspan of 3 ½ —4" (88—100mm) and are relatively large compared to most insects. Their long, angelic wings are brownish orange and have black to dark brown scales blanketing the margins with two rows of orange and/or white spots and veins outlined in black (Milne 758). The head and the body are pitch black with bright white spots.
Can you tell which one is the Monarch? Based on the description above, you should know that the upper left, bright orange one is the Danainae beauty!
Viceroys vs. Monarch Butterfly
As you can see, it is VERY easy to identify a Monarch, but be careful! The Monarch Butterfly has an imposter that looks incredibly similar called the Viceroy. The Viceroy butterfly uses a defense mechanism called “mimicry” to escape predation.
Because the Monarch butterfly is from the Danainae subfamily (milkweed butterfly), and eats milkweed as a caterpillar, it produces a chemical in the alkaloid family (the sticky, white sap from the milkweed) which is extremely poisonous and distasteful to most animals. The Monarch butterfly’s bright orange color advertises to predators of their high alkaloid concentration, and tells most animals of prey to stay away from it.
Viceroys do not eat milkweed as a caterpillar. They are not poisonous. They are not milkweed butterflies, and feed on poplar and willow leaves during their larvae stage. Yet predators do NOT eat them.
The Viceroys looks sooooo much like the Monarch that birds avoid the Viceroys too. This is called mimicry (College of DuPage 2000).
So how can you tell the difference between these two beauties? It is actually quite simple. First, look at the butterfly’s postmedian hindwings. The hindwings are the bottom two wings. The Viceroy has a thick, black line intersecting the black veins of the hindwing. The Monarch doesn’t have the crossing black line.
Now look at the butterfly’s size. The Monarch is slightly larger than the Viceroy. The Viceroy is only 2 ½ — 3 2/4” while the Monarch is 3 ½ —4” (as aforementioned).
Despite different physical characteristics, the Monarch and Viceroy also possess dissimilar behavioral characteristics. During flight, the Viceroy is more erratic and faster while the Monarch slowly floats and drifts in the air (Journey North 1997).
Queen vs. Monarch Butterfly
The Queen Butterfly is another great milkweed beauty closely related to the Monarch. They also originate from the Danainae subfamily (milkweed butterflies) in the Nymphalidae butterfly family just as the Monarchs do. They also look a lot alike. So how can you tell the difference between a Monarch and a Queen?
First, Queen Butterflies are typically (but NOT always) a darker and richer rusty shade of orange than the brighter, intense orange that the Monarch has. The two also have dissimilar wing patterns. When the butterflies are open, Queens do not have the black veining in their upper wings like the Monarch. The Queen’s wings are a pure shade of dark reddish-orange with no black lines whatsoever.
When they are closed though, both the Monarch and the Queen have the black veins, but you can still tell them apart because of their tone variations and the Queen typically has more white dots.
Monarchs and Queens behave differently too. Queens flutter their wings rapidly and bounce from side to side or up and down unlike the more graceful Monarch which glides graciously through the air (Journey North 1997-2013).
Queens are also smaller than the Monarch ranging in size from only 3 1/8 — 3 3/8” (Milne 757). Monarchs can grow to be an inch bigger, but this observation is practically imperceptible, especially if you are trying to identify a butterfly from a distance.
How to Identify a Monarch Caterpillar
Identifying a Monarch Caterpillar, like identifying the adult butterfly, is also easy. Monarch caterpillars are small black, worm-like larvae with white and yellow bands and a pair of flexible black filaments on its thorax and next-to-last abdominal segment (Milne 758). Monarch caterpillars range from ½ mm x 2mm width and length to 2 ¾ “ depending on their age. They are only found on, their host plant, milkweed.
Viceroys vs. Monarch Caterpillars
Now Viceroys and Monarchs might look a lot alike as butterflies, but they look COMPLETELY different as larvae. You will have NO trouble at all distinguishing the two species during their early stages of life.
The Viceroy caterpillar avoids predation by resembling bird poo. Ewwwie, right? They do not share any of the same physical characteristics as the Monarch caterpillar (besides the general anatomy that all caterpillars possess).
The Viceroys are not even found on the same plants as Monarchs. Monarchs are ONLY on milkweed, and Viceroys can be found on willow and poplar tree leaves.
Queen vs. Monarch Caterpillars CATERPILLARS
Viceroys might’ve looked NOTHING like Monarchs during their larva stage, but Queens are not the case. Queens and Monarch caterpillars are like human identical TWINS. They even eat the same host plant! This is because, as explained earlier, the Monarch and the Queens come from the same subfamily of milkweed butterflies: the Danainae.
The Queen is also a black caterpillar with white bands and pairs of black flexible filaments on the next-to-last abdominal section... BUT if you look closely, you should see two obvious traits that make the two different from one another. Firstly, Queen caterpillars usually have an extra antenna-like pair of black filaments protruding from their backs. The Monarch caterpillar only has two pairs of the “feelers.” Secondly, the larger black bands on the Queen caterpillar have dark yellow spots in their centers. The yellow found on Monarch caterpillars are bands not dots.
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