Monarchs: Children of the Sun

Monarchs are children of the sun. The boldness of Sol this summer has energized their life cycle.

August 30, 2010 | | Notes from the Wild

The orange and black of Canada’s most beloved insect has coloured our gardens and meadows more frequently this summer. Monarch butterflies are children of the sun.

The boldness of Sol this summer has energized their life cycle. For the monarch a welcome change from the wet amphibian friendly summers of 2008 and 2009. Weather can please some of nature’s creatures some of the time but not all of nature’s creatures all of the time.

Our monarchs are now beginning their wondrous migration to the mountains of central Mexico. The improbability of such a journey transports the monarch for many of us, into the realm of the mystic. Mysticism aside, the trip is a stupendous physical feat for an animal no heavier than a paper clip.

Consider as well that for a monarch reared in our hills, the chance of surviving from egg to winter residency in the Transvolcanic mountain range west of Mexico City is about as likely as you winning the Lotto 649 jackpot.

For starters, the vast majority of monarch caterpillars are consumed by a rogue’s gallery of hungry predators. Ants, wasps, spiders, stinkbugs, ambush bugs and assassin bugs hunt them down.

For those few that successfully squeeze through the predatory gauntlet and transform into the glory we know as the monarch butterfly, more death dealing challenges await on the flight south.

Low flyers risk being hit by cars. Late summer storms and unfavourable winds undoubtedly take a toll and some birds, despite the monarch’s well known toxicity, will eat them. I once watched a red-headed woodpecker eat a monarch butterfly. The discarded wings drifted to the ground.

The extreme mortality of monarch caterpillars negates any ethical concerns of taking them from the wild to rear at home.

While I’m no fan of capturing wild creatures as “pets,” monarch cats raised in the sanctuary of your home, away from their myriad predators, gives them a much greater chance at survival. And what a tremendous way to get up close and personal with the natural world!

The growth stages known as instars, (a new “instar” occurs when the caterpillar sheds its skin) can be observed, culminating in the creation of a chrysalis. These chrysalides are beautiful packets of promise – pendants of jade that sparkle with golden flecks. Adding to their allure is the miracle of metamorphosis happening within.

Just prior to emergence, the iconic orange and black colour is revealed through the transparent skin of the chrysalis. If fortunate you may observe the birthing of the butterfly and the drying of its wings. Then with Mexico beckoning, it will launch itself in a southwesterly direction.

Before this flight however, the monarch can be gently placed on the faces of earthbound humans. I do this at school in Brampton every fall. Broad smiles are guaranteed and perhaps, I hope, the stirrings of appreciation for the natural world.

How to raise a monarch cat? A small plastic terrarium will suffice. Place something like a plastic margarine container inside, filled with water. Poke holes in the lid of the container and insert milkweed branches. The monarch cat will eventually form a chrysalis on the top of the container and about two weeks later the glorious adult will emerge.

About the Author More by Don Scallen

Don Scallen enjoys sharing his love of nature through his writing and presentations. Check out his blog "Notes from the Wild".

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