An Insect Wonder of the World
An Insect Wonder of the World
Mary Ann Hamilton, VP of Science and Conservation
It was when I was in high school when I learned about the monarch butterfly migration. After seeing the pictures of forest trees covered in monarchs I knew that it was something I needed to see in person. When I think of all the insects in our world butterflies don’t always jump to the top of my list when I think of who is the most beautiful or has the best adaptations, but when I think of some of the coolest insects monarchs always make the list. It is amazing to me that these small, delicate, short-lived animals are able to travel distances, up to 3,000 miles, that is more than many humans travel in their lives.
As I continued my undergraduate education I found that my appreciation and admiration for insects had grown to the point that I needed to change the focus of my studies. When I became a student of entomology that is when I truly became who I am today. Many people link major life changes to the metamorphosis of a butterfly and without sounding corny, now I could to. Learning about insect adaptations and the feats that they are able to accomplish are overwhelmingly amazing.
So back to the monarchs…. These butterflies start off as a tiny egg, hatch into a yellow, black and white striped caterpillar (this stage is the growing stage where the caterpillar molts several times before it is ready to pupate), create a chrysalis, then emerge as an adult butterfly. This entire process takes approximately 30 days to accomplish. Once the adults emerge their primary focus is to reproduce and eat. Most adult monarchs will only live 14 – 30 days but the migrating monarch can live up to 9 months.
Why do monarchs migrate? As the temperatures become cooler and the days become shorter the migrating generation of monarchs react and begin moving southward, these insects can’t survive a cold winter. The monarchs will travel south in two major patterns: those monarch west of the Rocky Mountains will travel south to California and those monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains will travel south through Texas into the mountains of Mexico. Once the monarchs reach their over wintering sites they roost in trees, these trees are completely covered in a sea of orange and black monarch wings. It is said to be a sight to see. They stay in these trees over the winter, moving very little, until winter ends and the days become longer and warmer, this is usually in early March. At this time they begin to mate and move north in search of food and host plants to lay their eggs on. Many southern states see a second migration as the monarchs continue to move north laying their eggs. After the adults have successfully reproduced they die. Only days after being laid the eggs hatch and new caterpillars are out feeding on milkweed and growing quickly. Their metamorphosis continues and once adult this generation moves north toward their parent’s original habitat. As this process continues the adults move northward until they reach their original home. Three to four generations later their amazing migration begins again. Each year new generations of monarchs fly to the same over wintering sites, it is still unknown how they are able to accomplish this feat.
The Butterfly Pavilion is now offering a trip to the Mexico monarch over wintering sites. This is an amazing opportunity, one that will allow you to witness an amazing and unexplained natural occurrence; if you ask me I’d call it an insect wonder of the world. Come join me as we travel down to see the magical and mysterious monarch migration.
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