Tuesday, June 24, 2014

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Backyard Bugs: Monarch Butterfly

The second bug in our Backyard Bug series is the Monarch Butterfly:

Monarch butterflies are common throughout North America and several other world-wide locations. They are easy to spot with bright orange wings with black stripes and a black border with white dots.

Monarchs living in warm southern areas spend their whole lives in the same relative area while monarchs living in the northern end of their range (in the northern United States and Canada) make a remarkable migration that they are famous for!  In the fall, the monarchs leave their colder habitats and fly south to Mexico and the southern United States.  They overwinter in a form of hibernation known as diapause, then return north in the spring.  Amazingly, the entire migration takes much longer than any one butterfly will live, so the returning butterflies are 2nd, 3rd, or 4th generation monarchs!

Diapause:  a "pausing" of growth, reproduction, and metabolism similar to hibernation that insects often use to survive cooler winter conditions.

Monarchs go through a complete metamorphosis:  they begin life as eggs that hatch into caterpillars.  The caterpillars eat only milkweed.  When the caterpillars have grown, they hang upside down, and molt.  The molted exoskeleton becomes a chrysalis which protects the caterpillar as it changes into a butterfly.  After about two weeks the butterfly emerges, hangs for a few hours from the chrysalis to dry, and then flies away.  The monarch butterfly can eat nectar from several flowers and usually lives for about two months.  (The exception is the butterfly that enters diapause can live up to seven months.)

The milkweed plant that monarch caterpillars and adults eat is toxic to most animals besides the monarchs.  It makes the monarchs taste bad and, if eaten, can make the predator sick.  However, the toxicity lessens as the monarchs migrate south and birds like black-beaked orioles and black-headed grosbeaks can eat them when they overwinter in the south.  Spiders, wasps, and ants can are also monarch predators.

It is perfectly safe for children to hold monarchs (both caterpillars and butterflies), but must be closely monitored because children may squeeze or injure them.  Injured caterpillars may not form a chrysalis and injured butterflies may not fly.

With Your Preschooler:

Plant some milkweed plants
in your yard to attract monarchs!  There are many different types of milkweed, and monarchs are common in many parts of the United States!

Observe the monarch (caterpillar or butterfly) in a bug observation container.  How does it move?

Give the monarch a slice of orange or a milkweed flower.  Can you see its "sucking" mouthparts?  Butterfly mouths are made for sucking nectar, similar to how you can use a straw to suck a drink.  Drink a juice box or a cup of water like a butterfly!

This post is part of the Backyard Bugs series!  Check out past bugs here and be sure to join us next week when we learn about cicadas!!

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Do you love butterflies?  Be sure to check out my post about painted lady butterflies here and this super easy and gorgeous butterfly craft!

I may share at any of these parties!