Home-grown monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus).
In 2015, a monarch visited my garden on September 18. In 2016, monarchs passed through on September 13 and September 20. Last summer, in 2017, monarchs were present in my garden pretty regularly from September 13 to October 28. In the photo above, taken on October 19, a monarch is nectaring on verbena. A milkweed plant with pods and tufts of silk can be seen in the background. Looking at this photo, I have to wonder if, for the first time, perhaps I had home-grown monarchs in my garden.
It’s possible. According to MonarchWatch, a monarch life cycle takes about 30 days. So, the female adult monarch butterflies from mid-September may have laid eggs on milkweed in my garden, from which larva, or caterpillars, may have passed through their 5 instars, or intervals between molts, to form pupa, or chrysalises, resulting in the adult flying monarch butterflies of mid-October. All this is conjecture on my part because I failed to discover eggs, larva, or pupa during that month. Next summer, I will pay closer attention.
Both male and female adult monarch butterflies were present in my garden during that period of time. As the images above from September 27 demonstrate, male monarch butterflies have a scent patch, a black spot, on each hind wing. Female monarchs are without a scent patch. They tend to be darker in color with wider veins on their wings.
By September 29, multitudes of monarchs, well, 3 at a time at least, were nectaring at the verbena in my garden. At most during October, I saw 5 adult monarch butterflies at one time. It seemed like a multitude, but perhaps cluster is a better term for monarchs. A small cluster. October monarchs in New Jersey are destined to migrate to Mexico, living as long as 8 to 9 months, as opposed to the 2 to 5 week life span of summertime adult monarchs. According to a nifty field guide I recently acquired, Milkweed, Monarchs and More, by Ba Rea, Karen Oberhauser, and Michael A. Quinn, fall monarch butterflies are in a state of reproductive diapause–meaning that they are reproductively immature. After migrating and spending the winter in Mexico, they break their diapause and become reproductive on the return migration, usually in the southern U.S. The resulting offspring continue the return migration, and the cycle continues.
According to MonarchWatch, adult monarchs are not choosy about flowers they visit as long as there is nectar. In my garden, verbena is certainly popular with them. They use their proboscises to suck in nectar. They use their vision to find flowers while in flight. They use receptors on their feet to find nectar once they land. In the lower image above, the monarch seems to be seeking new blossoms with its feet while feeding on a blossom through its proboscis. No time to lose.
Although I had a few milkweed plants in my garden previously, I planted many more native varieties last year–Asclepias syriaca, (common milkweed); A. incarnata, (swamp milkweed); and A. tuberosa, (butterfly weed). I don’t have photos of these plants in bloom this summer. See the posts What are monarch butterflies doing in my garden, and Planning for butterflies for images of flowering milkweed in previous summers. Perhaps milkweed in my garden reached some sort of critical mass in the summer of 2017 in order to attract reproducing monarchs, or perhaps 2017 was just a good year for monarchs in New Jersey.
By October, milkweed plants are well beyond the point when female monarchs would lay their eggs on the underside of leaves. The milkweed in the images above are forming pods, or follicles, and releasing tufts of silk with seed. Their primary purpose at this point is to reproduce themselves. Milkweed plants may appear in new areas of my garden next spring due to air-borne seed dispersal. Common milkweed (A. syriaca) may develop into dense stands from underground rhizomes. That’s a little scary for a gardener with a small garden. I will be brave and wait and watch.
Large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) nymphs were discovered in milkweed seed pods on October 18, 2017. Large milkweed bugs are migratory. They overwinter as adults, but not in New Jersey. They don’t seem to be harmful.
Intent of being a messy gardener this winter in order to attract more wildlife–although please not groundhogs or field mice, I left milkweed plants in my wildflower garden as can be seen in the images above. I’ll clean them up in the spring. It’s an experiment.
By October 10, 2017, the verbena is noticeably going to seed, as can be seen in the images above, but the monarchs look young and fresh and ready for a long migration.
On October 19, 2017, both painted ladies (Vanessa cardui) and monarchs continued to grace my garden. See the post Ladies’ day out in my garden, for more garden news about the migration of painted ladies in 2017. While monarchs and painted ladies were more plentiful, I sorely missed the swallowtails I thought would be present every year, but were not in the summer of 2017.
I recently read an article by a butterfly gardener who painstakingly planned and built a monarch butterfly garden and was upset because only swallowtails, fritillaries, and various other butterflies, bees, and birds showed up. Good grief. I say be thankful for what you get. Don’t try to play God in your garden.
October 28, 2017, was the last day that I photographed monarchs. Of course, there are many days when I’m not in my garden at the right time with my camera in hand. Next summer, I hope to be much more attentive to the life cycles of butterflies. What a great thing it will be to discover and photograph butterfly eggs, larva, and pupa. Then I will truly know that there are home-grown monarchs in my garden.