Do you ever find yourself watching a butterfly and wondering to yourself, what in the world are they doing? Well, this blog is meant to demystify some of your butterfly curiosities and help you to better understand the butterflies in your garden. Below are 5 key terms to understanding butterfly behavior.
Before moving ahead, I feel compelled to pay homage to the late, world-renowned Monarch conservationist and ecologist, Lincoln Brower who spent most of his life studying Monarch butterfly behavior. Without his research the Monarch world would not be the same.
Butterflies don't have teeth but they do have a proboscis. A proboscis is basically an elongated snout that can straighten by hydrostatic pressure, allowing them to drink the nectar from tube-like flowers. When they aren't feeding, their proboscis is rolled up on the underside of their head. Some butterflies also like to feed on rotting fruit when flowers aren't available.
Did you know that butterflies are ectotherms, also known as cold-blooded? This means they rely on the sun to warm their muscles and raise their internal temperature enough for flight. According to Journey North, a monarch's threshold for flight is 55°F (13°C). Their wings work as solar panels to capture that heat and reflect it onto their black thorax. Generally they "bask" with their wings outstretched in order to capture the maximum amount of UV radiation.
Another way for butterflies to raise their internal temperature is by shivering, or moving their wings rapidly.
Butterflies do not have it easy. They are constantly avoiding freezing, desiccation, heat stress, and predation. That is why they have developed so many behavioral strategies in order to survive.
According to a scientific paper by researchers Masters, Malcom and Brower: "The monarch thus is the first butterfly in which shivering has been shown to be of major ecological importance."
Butterflies don’t exactly sleep but they do rest or "roost". In fact, a cluster of butterflies is called a roost. When they roost, their wings are generally closed and you can see why. The Monarch butterfly has an excellent camouflage on the underside of it's wings that makes them look just like dried leaves.
So, roosting allows them to hide from predators, rest and regulate their temperatures. Studies have found that clustering will also raise the butterfly's temperature, protecting them from freezing at night.
Butterflies can be found sipping moisture from puddles or wet soil after a nice rain. Not only are they being hydrated but they also pick up salts in the process. The salts are also thought to increase a male butterfly's fertility.
Interestingly enough, Monarchs differ from their close relatives, the Danaids, in their mating behavior. For instance, Monarchs do not use pheromones or complex courtship rituals to engage with their mates. Instead, they pursue the females in flight or perch on them while they are on the ground, then attempt to mate with them through coercion.
Research done by K. Oberhauser, M. Solensky, and D. Frey, suggests that mating by coercion evolved in both overwintering and summer generations of Monarchs, and the dependence on chemical cues was lost.
According to several reports, including the arborists of Cerro Pelon and Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, this is the year to visit the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Mexico!
If you've found yourself on this page, you probably don't need any convincing to go see this phenomenon. Seeing millions of Monarch butterflies floating in the sky like an orange and black snowstorm is truly a magical experience. However, there are even more reasons to visit the overwintering ground in Central Mexico.
In the past, the forests of the sanctuary have suffered from issues of illegal logging and this is still happening in some places. However, with the income from butterfly tourism and concern about the Monarch population, some locals have started tree nurseries and are working as guides within in the sanctuary. By visiting the sanctuary, you are helping to raise awareness and employ those who are protecting the sanctuary.
When to Visit
The Monarchs begin to arrive at the sanctuary in the Central mountains of Mexico in November (this year they arrived on November 6th) and will overwinter there until mid-March when they head North again. The sanctuaries aren't open to the public until mid-November. Apparently, the most popular time to see them is between January and February when they are in peak migration. However, I would highly recommend going in late-November or December. Why? For one, there will most likely be less people and you will have a more private experience. Don't worry, you will still see A LOT of butterflies. The video above was taken in Cerro Pelon in early December.
There are 4 sanctuaries open to the public. Each of these sanctuaries is a little different in accessibility, difficulty of hike, location, Monarch population, and flora. Why not visit them all?
Cerro Pelón is where scientists first confirmed that the butterflies migrated from Canada all the way to this Oyamel Fir forest in Central Mexico. Many butterfly enthusiasts and travelers will say that this is the most rugged and beautiful of the sanctuaries. I would have to agree that it was a lovely and private experience. Other than the arborists, ranger, and our guide we were the only people up there on the mountain.
We booked our Cerro Pelon tour and stay through JM's Butterfly B&B. As far as I know, they are the only local guide company based in Macheros, the mountain village where the entrance to the sanctuary is. In fact, the entrance to the sanctuary is just a few minutes walk from JM Butterfly House and someone from the B & B will escort you. I highly recommend staying at JM's and booking a tour with them. Their guides, as well as Joel and Ellen are extremely hospitable, knowledgable and will give you the full butterfly experience! I was very excited to meet the Butterflies and Their People arborists.
For prices and concise directions to JM Butterfly click here.
It is a very steep hike up even for the experienced hiker. I opted for the horse and it was about an hour and 20 minute ride up the mountain at a fairly brisk pace (for the horse). Have no fear if you are not an experienced horseback rider because there will be a horse handler to lead you and your horse.
Once you arrive at a clearing at the top of the mountain, your handler will tie up your horse and it will be between a 15 and 25 minute walk to the colony of butterflies. Keep in mind that the length of time will vary considerably at different times of the season. I visited at the beginning of December. My guide, Ana, said that the Monarchs generally continue to move deeper into the forest and higher on the mountain as more butterflies arrive.
This was the second most recommended sanctuary by the folks of JM Butterfly House and I was told it was less developed and less touristy than El Rosario.
My mother and I stayed in Zitácuaro the night before which is about an hour and a half drive from the sanctuary. We took a bus to Angangueo (also called Pueblo Mágico), a small mountain village with beautiful, colorful houses and a lovely cathedral. It is the perfect launch pad for El Rosario and Sierra Chincua, being just about a 30 minute taxi drive to either. I would recommend staying in this village if you get the chance.
After taking a bus from Zitácuaro to Angangueo for around 50 pesos ($2.50 USD), we took a taxi from the plaza of Angangueo to the entrance of Sierra Chincua for around 100 Pesos ($5 USD).
Important Note: Once up on the mountain in Sierra Chincua, public transport is very limited and you may want to arrange a ride prior. We were told that there is a combi (an outfitted VW bus) that arrives at 5:00 pm but we decided to have our taxi driver wait for us. The price for this will vary depending on your taxi driver but he told us he would wait 2 hours and take us back to Angangueo for 500 Pesos ($25 USD).
Sierra Chincua did not disappoint. Entry fee into the Sanctuary was 50 Pesos ($2.50) per person and renting a horse is 200 pesos ($10 dollars). It is also customary to tip your guide somewhere between 100 and 200 Pesos. There are also restaurants and souvenir shops at the entrance.
The horseback ride was much shorter than the one to Cerro Pelon and was only about 15 minutes up (although it is very steep). From there, it was about a 15 minute walk to the tree stand that is inhabited by the butterfly colony. It was a cloudy day and most of the butterflies were roosting in the trees. A different perspective than the sunny day we had in Cerro Pelon! Both views were absolutely stunning.
Unfortunately, we didn't have time to visit El Rosario this year although we got close. From Angangueo, you can take a combi to the entrance which is about 30 minutes and will cost less than 50 pesos ($2.50 USD).
Here is a quote by Ellen Sharp from JM Butterfly House about El Rosario:
"Unlike the unmarked trail that winds up the mountain on Cerro Pelon, here you’ll find numerous souvenir stalls, large tour groups, concrete steps, interpretive signs, and a lot more guides making sure you don’t get too close to the colony. The hike up is mostly on a paved trail and it takes 30-45 minutes each way, depending on your speed and acclimation. A horse will get you there in 20 minutes. In recent years, El Rosario has been the most populous of the butterflies’ overwintering sites. "
Again, we were not able to visit this site but here is a summary from JM Butterfly House:
"The trip from our place to Piedra Herrada takes you through the small farming villages of the State of Mexico on a road lined with fields of fruit trees and nopal cactuses. Then the road descends into the cosmopolitan colonial gem and weekend resort town, Valle de Bravo, which we visit on the way back. The sanctuary is another half hour down the road from here. The trail begins with a stone path with a separate trail for horses. The hike takes from 45 minutes to an hour each way."
Bring an extra jacket because it will always be colder in the sanctuary which is at an altitude of almost 10,000 ft or 3000 m. If riding a horse, you can ask to tie the coat onto your saddle.
Our goal is to install over 5,000 Pollinator Gardens across the US and you can help!
We have received so many pictures and stories of successful School Pollinator Garden Projects and we want to encourage everyone to start one in their community! It’s very easy to get started and we are going to tell you how.
You don't need a lot of space to start a pollinator garden and just a few containers or raised beds can provide a habitat for hungry butterflies and bees. Having this outdoor classroom can encourage observation, exploration and a instill land stewardship values. Teachers can even build a curriculum around a garden, focusing on subjects such as: biology, environmental studies, writing, and art.
OPTION 1: Sign up for our Pollinator School Program
Send an online application to receive FREE seeds for your school, scout troop, 4-H club or non-profit organization. The Pollinator Seed Packet contains 25 wildflower varieties for children to plant in a Butterfly & Bee Garden!
Send your request to by Mail:
Pollinator Garden Program
Save Our Monarchs Foundation
PO Box 390135
Minneapolis, MN 55439
Once you receive your seeds, you can start developing a Monarch Education program at your school. There are various Free educational resources online.
OPTION 2: Sign up for our School Fundraising Program
Save Our Monarchs would like to partner with your school!
We are currently working with school districts across the country that want to educate their students about the plight of the monarch, and spread the word throughout their community through various fundraising efforts and outreach. We currently offer two options for Fundraising.
OPTION 1: School-Funded
For every $35 donation to Save Our Monarchs, schools receive 100 Milkweed Seed Packs. Students can then sell the Milkweed Seed Packets for $1 to $2 each. If a school were to sell 1,000 Milkweed Seed Packets, for instance, they can make up to $2,000 ($1,750 profit) which can be used to purchase school supplies, playground equipment, pay for sports programs, etc.
OPTION 2: Save Our Monarchs-Funded
With this option, schools receive milkweed seed packets for free (shipping fees apply). Students then sell the Milkweed Seed Packets for $1 to $2 each. All proceeds are sent back to Save Our Monarchs so we can continue to invest in more milkweed seeds to save the monarchs butterfly.
Questions? Please send us a message at www.facebook.com/saveourmonarchs/ or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Did you know that most Milkweed seeds and many other perennial plants need a period of cold stratification in order to germinate?
In using the Outdoor Methods, it is best to plant your seeds after the first frost. I live in Nebraska where the first average frost happens around October 5th. (click here to find out when your average first frost is). I am planting Common Milkweed (Ascepias syriaca) because it is the most common species of Milkweed growing in my area and I know it needs a cold stratification period.
The "Fall Planting Method"
Fall planting is a traditional method of cold stratification. The best time to plant Milkweed seeds in the Fall when the first frosts start to occur. I recommend planting them directly in the ground, however you can plant them in pots with some additional attention.
1. Choose an area where you want to grow your Milkweed plants. Make sure it has proper sunlight and is in a slightly protected area.
If planting in pots, make sure they are protected (i.e. against the side of a building or next to straw bales). Make sure the pots are not in the drip-line of the building so that they could potentially fill with water and then freeze. However, snow-melt is an important part of the process so do allow snow to cover the pot.
2. Sprinkle the seeds on the soil and mulch with a couple inches of straw or leaves.
Note: Do not pack the mulch down as it is important to have a bit of air flow to deter mold and fungus from growing.
3. Sprinkle water over the seed bed if soil is dry.
4. Mark the area so you don't forget where you planted.
5. Be patient. They will not germinate and start sprouting until Spring and sprouting will not occur all at the same time as with most cultivated varieties of plants. These are wild plants that will have more genetic variation and will be more likely to survive once they have become established.
The "Winter Planting Method"
This method is also called "Snow Planting". It is an easy, fun method that should spark the interest of children and adults alike!
During the winter after a heavy snow, broadcast your seeds out on the snow. Believe it or not, many of them will come up in the spring! The moisture will soften their seed coats and essentially wake them up.
Make sure it is in an area that you want the plants to grow and will have plenty of sunlight in the Spring and Summer.
Have fun experimenting with different methods of cold stratification. You can even plant a small batch of Milkweed seeds in the Fall, Winter and Spring! Why not? Each time you will learn something new and know what works best for your area next time. Don't give up and record your findings!
I have just covered how to sow Milkweed in the Fall and Winter in this blog. If you want to opt for the Spring planting stay tuned for Part 2 of the Cold Stratification 101. In the meantime, keep you Milkweed seeds in a dry, aerated envelope and store in a dark place for the Winter. If I plant in the Spring, I generally start the Cold/Moist treatment for Milkweeds 30-60 days before the last average frost in my area.
Save Our Monarchs recently released our Pandora Monarch Butterfly Charm and we went behind the scenes to see how they were made!
The Monarch Butterfly Charm was created by local glass artist from Nebraska, Matthew Losee, and the proceeds go to support Save Our Monarch's School Pollinator Program. The beads can be used on earrings, bracelets, necklaces, key chains and the list goes on! They also make thoughtful gifts to your Monarch-loving friends and family.
Each glass color is layered separately onto a mandrel beginning with black. The glass that is used is call borosilicate which is what Pyrex is made from and is extremely break-resistant.
Next, the unique "Monarch Orange" glass color is layered on.
Now for the distinctive white spots that we recognize on our Monarch friends.
Lastly, a clear layer of glass is added in order to magnify the image and they are put into a kiln.
Meet the Artist
How do you use your Monarch bead? Please post in the comments ways in which you use yours!
The time has come to collect milkweed seeds if you haven't already. You can plant them next year, give them to friends and family, share with your community and/or donate them to your favorite Monarch conservation organization!
Where should I collect? You can collect Milkweed pods on private lands (with permission of course), public right of ways and road sides.
What if I'm not sure how if it's a Milkweed plant? All milkweed species develop a seed pod and they look very similar. Refer to the Milkweed Identification blog if you're not sure how to identify Milkweed.
How much should I collect? The rule of thumb for harvesting wild plants is to leave at least 2/3rds of the plant to ensure that the wild population will continue to thrive.
Step 1: Collecting the Milkweed Pods
Timing is key when collecting milkweed seeds. Here are a couple of tricks to ensure that your seeds are mature and viable.
If the pod is brown and has already popped open releasing their silky fluff, also called coma, you know that they are ready and you can harvest them and remove the fluff later.
However, if you want to avoid the fluff and be able to take the seeds off neatly and easily, here is a little trick.
I look for green seed pods and the first thing I do is squeeze the seed pod. If I hear a gentle pop and see that the pod has split at the suture, then I look inside. If the seeds are a nice coffee brown then I know they are mature and I can collect the pod. However, If the seeds are white or tan, I don’t collect them and let them continue to mature on the plant.
Milkweed seeds can mold easily so I like to use a paper bag or cardboard box when I'm out collecting.
Step 2- Removing the Seeds from the Husk
This is a fun and relaxing activity. So, I’ve already collected my light green seed pods that have row after row of beautiful tightly packed seeds. I let them sit for about 2 weeks so they are dry and easy to remove (you do not have to let them dry this long). I open the pod at the suture and grab the narrow end of the pod then gently pull until the seed follicle comes out of the husk. Then, I rake my finger nail along the seed follicle, going WITH the grain of the seeds.
To see a video of this process click here.
Step 3- Drying
After you remove the seeds, you’ll want to let them dry out for 3 days to a week. I like to let them dry on cardboard in a well-ventilated area. My porch works well for this.
Step 4- Storage
Once they have dried out, I store them in small manilla envelopes and date them. I do not store them in plastic bags because this will often cause them to mold.
You Can Donate Your Seeds To Save Our Monarchs Foundation
If YOU have seeds to donate from your own plantings, you can:
1) Donate it to Save our Monarchs via postal mail
Save Our Monarchs Foundation
P.O. Box #390135
Minneapolis, MN 55439
2) Scatter the seed in public areas, including city and state parks, schools, lakes, rivers, bike trails, golf courses (with permission).
Let's face it, pests are the bane of any gardener's existence.
Although pesticides can be helpful in managing garden pests, they also have a number of drawbacks including: potential toxicity to humans, pets and pollinators. In fact, millions of pollinators die each year due to pesticides and tainted Milkweed is a common factor in Monarch mortality.
Which begs the question: How do you get rid of the bad bugs while sparing your beloved pollinators and other beneficial bugs?
Although the best option is to avoid pesticides altogether, many gardeners can't imagine not using any pesticides at all. Therefore, this blog will discuss pesticides with the lowest toxicity to pollinators and tips for safely applying pesticides.
*Here is a list of EPA’s reduced risk pesticides that pose less risk to human health and the environment than existing pesticides.
First off, What is a pesticide?
Pesticides are a broad category of substances that are meant to deter, kill or discourage various types of pests such as weeds, nematodes, plant pathogens or fungi. The term pesticide includes herbicides, insecticides, nematicides, fungicide and other pest deterrents.
10 Tips for Using Pesticides Safely
Know what type of insects you are targeting.
Do not treat flowering plants.
Do not spray where pollinators such as butterflies, bees and moths are actively foraging.
When possible, eliminate weeds by mowing or pulling.
Choose short residual materials and low-hazard formulations if insecticides absolutely must be applied during the flowering period to save the crop.
Apply insecticides when pollinators are no longer foraging such as in the evening or early morning.
Adjust spray programs in relation to weather conditions. If it is windy, do not spray.
Read the pesticide label.
When possible, remove bugs by hand.
Reduce pressure of spray nozzle to prevent pesticide drift.
If you choose to use pesticides, consider these safer options.
Keep in mind that no pesticides are completely safe to pollinators but if you follow these guidelines, you may be able to minimize your impact. This is a list of pesticides that are considered pollinator safe by the Michigan State University extension office.
Insecticidal soaps are most effective on soft-bodied insects such as aphids, adelgids, lace bugs, leafhoppers, mealybugs, thrips, sawfly larvae, spider mites and whiteflies. They are not effective on pests as a residue on the plant surface, and therefore are not toxic to pollinators after the spray dries. They can be safely used at any time to control pests on plants that are not attractive to pollinators, but on pollinator-attractive plants spray at dawn or dusk when pollinators are not present.
Like insecticidal soap, horticultural oils work best when the spray comes in contact with the pest. Once the oil spray dries, it does not have much effect and becomes safe for pollinators and other beneficial insects. Horticultural oil can be safely used at any time to control pests on plants that are not attractive to pollinators, but on pollinator-attractive plants they should be sprayed at dawn or dusk when pollinators are not present.
Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t.)
While a B.t. strain works well for its target pest, it also breaks down quickly in sunlight, becoming ineffective after a few days. This makes B.t. very safe for pollinators, predatory insects and mammals. B.t. can be sprayed even when bees or butterflies are present.
The fungus Metarhizium anisopliae is found naturally in soils and infects and kills insects. M. anisopliae does not detrimentally impact honey bees and is being studied as a bio-insecticide of varroa mites, a pest of honey bees.
Spinosad is highly toxic to bees. However, toxicity is greatly reduced once the product has dried on the foliage, within three hours to one day depending on the product. Therefore, avoid use if bees are active, and if applications are needed, apply in the evening when bees are not active and product has time to dry. This product suppresses a broad number of caterpillar species and should not be sprayed or allowed to drift in known habitats for threatened or endangered species of caterpillars and butterflies.
As a caution, apply pymetrozine in the evening, night or early morning when bees and butterflies are not visiting blooming plants. Since this product is selective for aphids and whiteflies, there should be no impact on other pollinators or natural enemies.
Acequinocyl is considered nontoxic to bees and can be applied at any time. Since acequinocyl is selective for mites, other pollinators and natural enemies should not be affected.
The Xerxes Society. https://xerces.org/neonicotinoids-and-bees/
North American Pollinator Protection Campaign
Pesticide Environmental Stewardship. https://pesticidestewardship.org/ipm/
Michigan State University Extension, How to protect and increase pollinators in your landscape. http://msue.anr.msu.edu/resources/how_to_protect_and_increase_pollinators_in_your_landscape/how_to_control_invasive_pests_while_protecting_pollinators#subpage
Many people have been asking the question, “What's wrong with my Monarch caterpillar/egg/chrysalis?”
This is a list of the MOST common problems that the Monarch Rearer may encounter and how you can either avoid your Monarch from being infected or avoid the infection from spreading to your other caterpillars. Hopefully these tips and indicators can help you raise healthier Monarchs in the future!
Warning: Some photos may seem graphic or unpleasant.
What is Black Death?
As the name suggests, this is a fatal and very unpleasant ailment for the Monarch. Black Death is a general yet appropriate term used to describe the effects of two different infections. Pseudomonas is a bacteria that thrives in moist environments and Nuclear polyhedrosis virus (NPV) is a virus.
How to tell if your Monarch has Black Death:
Your caterpillar may be fine one day and the next start to become lethargic, start to deflate, refuse to eat and start to turn a darker color. Sometimes their chrysalises will turn dark brown or they pupate and then liquefy into a black goo. This can be a traumatic experience for the Monarch Rearer but once your caterpillar has contracted Black Death, it is nearly impossible to save them and the best thing to do is remove it immediately from the cage and disinfect anything it may have touched in order to prevent it from spreading to other caterpilalrs.
Note: NPV causes the caterpillar to climb to a high spot, hang in an l or inverted V shape, and die. The caterpillar then liquefies inside and when the skin of the caterpillars splits open, the black goo will send millions of virus particles on its surroundings. The smell is very pungent. If a caterpillar lies at the bottom of a rearing container (instead of crawling higher in the container) and dies either firm or mushy, it is not infected with NPV.
How to prevent Black Death
O.E. (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha)
What is OE?
OE is a protozoan parasite that is spread through microscopic spores coming off the wings and bodies of adult butterflies. These spores are packed in between scales on the Monarch's body and when it lays eggs, often attaches to the egg shell. Because OE is a parasite, it relies on a living host and will generally not kill Monarchs but will lead to weakness, disfigurement, and lethargy. Eventually it may die from sheer exhaustion.
How to tell if your Monarch has OE:
You won't be able to tell if a Monarch has OE until it's in the pupal or adult stage. Infected chrysalises won’t have a uniform green color. You can check your chrysalis closely to make sure it's dark spots are mirrored on both sides. Heavily infected Monarchs may not emerge or if they do they may be deformed or too weak to hold on.
How to prevent OE:
What are Tachinid Flies?
Tachinid flies can be difficult to differentiate from other flies in your garden. However, if you look closely, you will see that they are hairy and have huge red eyes.
How tell if your Monarch was infected by a Tachinid Fly:
This is one of the easiest Monarch infections to identify. They lay eggs on monarch caterpillars and once hatched, the maggots will bore into the caterpillar and feed on them while they are still living. You can generally tell if your caterpillar has been infected if it suddenly gets much skinnier and will sometimes die while attempting to form it’s chrysalis. These flies also lay eggs inside chrysalises. After it’s host has died, the maggots will emerge, leaving tell-tale white strands of silk hanging from the caterpillar or chrysalis.
How to prevent Tachinid Flies:
Sadly, it occurs quite often where nurseries treat their milkweed with pesticides or roadsides/fields are sprayed where you collected milkweed/caterpillars unknowingly.
How to tell if your Monarch has come into contact with Tainted Milkweed:
If your caterpillar has ingested pesticides it will often expel green vomit.
How to avoid this from happening:
What are Trichogramma Wasps?
They are tiny parasitic wasps that inject a single egg into the eggs of the pest. After consuming the contents of its host egg, a new adult wasp will emerge within 10 days.
How to tell if your Monarch has come into contact with Trichogramma Wasps:
If your egg turns completely dark keep an eye on it for the next couple of days to make sure a Monarch doesn’t hatch. If it doesn’t hatch, squeeze the egg inside of the leaf and dispose of the leaf.
How to avoid:
What are Chalcid Wasps?
This is another tiny, parasitic wasp that waits for the perfect moment to attack your beloved caterpillar. It will approach when the caterpillar is in it’s vulnerable “J” stage and wait for it to form a chrysalis. Then, right afterwards, it lays hundreds of its eggs in the soft chrysalis.
How to tell if your Monarch has been infected by Chalcid Wasps:
Look for small black dots where it appears they have deposited their eggs.
How to avoid:
When this occurs, the caterpillar’s rectum protrudes from its anus, leaving a bright green ball at the end of your caterpillar. It’s not known what causes this, but it’s always fatal to the caterpillar.
I don’t know about you, but I find photographing insects and butterflies quite thrilling.
It might be the act of slowly sneaking up on them or the knowledge that they could flit away at any moment, but I always feel a sense of accomplishment after capturing an elusive butterfly on camera. Looking closely at the intricate patterns and observing their intriguing behaviors can provide a new perspective. There are a vast number of insects in the world (in the United States, the number of described species is approximately 91,000) so you will never run out of subject matter! The beauty and diversity of insects may just open up a whole new world for you.
You don’t have to break the bank on a new camera to get some great photos. Sometimes photos taken with your smart phone can be just as good as photos taken with expensive cameras.
Here are a few options:
A smart phone with a Macro lens attachment ($15 on Amazon)
A digital camera set to Macro mode
A DSLR camera with Macro lens attachment
Let them come to you
If you are looking for a specific type of butterfly or insect, It is very helpful to know some of your subject’s nectar and food sources so that you don’t spend all of your time chasing an elusive insect. Simply sit back and wait by one of their favorite treats and it is much more likely that they will come to you.
For instance, if you would like to photograph Painted Ladies, try hanging out near asters, goldenrods and marigolds. For Monarchs, think Milkweed!
If you don’t have a specific subject-matter in mind but just want to photograph butterflies, head to a garden with lots of flowers, a field outside of town or the nearest butterfly house. Sometimes you don't have to go far at all. I've found both Tiger Swallowtail butterflies and Hummingbird Moths feeding on my Beebalm and Coneflower patch in my yard.
It may be helpful to look over our Butterfly Identification 101 blog if you are trying to identify a butterfly.
Get the Timing Right
The best time to photograph butterflies is in the early morning when the lighting is soft and late afternoon when they are less active.
If it is mid-afternoon and you have a perfect opportunity to get a shot, here’s a quick trick to optimize your photo. If it’s a cloudy day, wait for the sun to pass behind a cloud to get a good shot. Sometimes, when you cast a shadow on your subject or move the branch they are sitting on, they will move in order to find sunlight so try not to disrupt their environment too much.
You can start out with your camera in Auto Focus mode to ensure that you will capture your subject, especially when you know that you don’t have long to get the shot. However, if you do have a little bit of time to adjust your shot, manual focus will almost always get the clearest and most interesting shot.
A rule-of-thumb is to focus on the insect’s eyes to get the best focus.
Tip: Make sure that you have your settings on your camera or phone adjusted before you approach your subject of choice. Insects, and especially butterflies, are apt to fly off at any moment.
Framing and Composition
The main objective is to capture the subject even if it isn’t perfect so don't be afraid to take an initial shot when you can. If you do have time to frame the photo, even better! It’s best to get a plain background, to make sure your subject pops and provides optimal contrast.
Butterflies don’t always have their wings open, so try to time the shot when their wings are open but also try different angles for more interesting photos.
Ready to give it a try?
SaveOurMonarch’s 3rd Annual Photo Contest is currently in progress until September 1st so you have lots of time to hone in on your insect photography skills and display them to the public!
For for information, read eligibility guidelines on our Facebook page.
Digital Macro & Close-up Photography - Ross Hoddinott
Close-up on Insects: A Photographer's Guide Hardcover – by Dr. Robert Thompson (Author), Stephen Dalton (Foreword)
Why raise Monarchs at home?
In the wild, Monarch eggs and larvae have a very small chance of survival.
Several studies have documented mortality rates of over 90% during the egg and larva stages.
That means only 10% of eggs and caterpillars will reach adulthood!
Not only is it a fun activity for the whole family but you are actually helping out an entire species!
Still not convinced?
What if I told you it’s easy to rear Monarchs at home? All you will need to get started is a ventilated box (we recommend these inexpensive enclosures) a few milkweed plants and, of course, your Monarch egg or caterpillar. The entire process from egg to adult butterfly takes about 1 month.
It's important to understand the life cycles of a Monarch before you get started. Monarchs go through complete metamorphosis in which there are four distinct stages of growth in one life cycle! These stages are: egg, the larvae (caterpillar), the pupa (chrysalis), and adult butterfly.
Life Cycle of a Monarch
Monarchs overwinter in Mexico and certain parts of Southern California. When they wake up from hibernation, they will intuitively head North and East to start laying eggs.
In March and April the eggs are laid on milkweed plants and it takes only 4 days for an egg to hatch!
According to Karen Oberhauser, Monarch biologist, captive monarch butterflies average about 700 eggs per female as opposed to 300-400 in the wild.
Monarch females usually lay a single egg on a milkweed plant on the bottom of leaf. So, when searching for eggs, don't forget to flip the leaf over! Eggs are very small and sometimes easy to miss!
Larval Stage (Caterpillar)
The larval stage last 2 weeks. Once the egg has hatched, a very small (and hungry) caterpillar emerges. During this time, the caterpillar will spend most of it's time eating so it will need fresh leaves everyday. As the caterpillar grows and becomes too large for its skin, it molts. The intervals between molts are called instars. Monarchs go through 5 instars. Click here if you'd like to learn more about differentiating the different instars.
Once the Monarch larvae has reached their final molting stage, they will hang upside down by their last pair of prolegs and create a chrysalis. They will spend between 1 and 2 weeks inside the chrysalis.
Before the butterfly emerges, the chrysalis will turn from green to clear like in the picture below. Once adults, Monarchs will live another two to six weeks in the summer. However, the last generation of super Monarchs that complete the migration much longer, about six to nine months.
Materials Needed for Raising Monarchs
Make sure you have a local nursery that you can acquire milkweed plants from or you already have some established in your yard because Monarch caterpillars can eat up to 200X their own body weight! Click here for types of Milkweed that are suitable for rearing Monarchs.
2. Monarch caterpillars or eggs- These can be found outside on milkweed plants or purchased.
3. Ventilated container such as a deli container or aquarium works well.
We recommend these inexpensive enclosures that make for easy cleaning. Use promo code 'monarchs10' to receive an additional 10% off.
4. Paper towels
5 Steps to Raising A Monarch at Home
Step 1: Find the eggs and/or caterpillars
The best way to do this is to visit milkweed plants daily that you know are already established and if you planned ahead, are already in your backyard! If you don’t have any luck finding milkweed plants or caterpillars, you can also order monarch rearing kits like this from Monarch Watch that contain live caterpillars .
Step 2: Choose a container
Put the eggs or caterpillars in a container and line with paper towels. Eggs only take 4 days to hatch and caterpillars will form a chrysalis within 2 weeks. Caterpillars have a HUGE appetite and can eat 200X their weight in Milkweed! A single caterpillar can easily defoliate a milkweed planted in a 1 gallon container so plan accordingly. Provide fresh leaves daily or enclose the entire milkweed plant. Larvae will survive best and attain a large size if you keep the food fresh, the container clean, and the humidity low.
Step 3: Clean the cage regularly
The caterpillars are eating constantly so they will generate a lot of frass (cute name for you know what). This frass should be collected every few days in order to keep the larvae healthy and you can replace the bottom of the container with more paper towels or parchment paper. You can even sprinkle it on your plants outside to give them a nitrogen boost!
Step 4: Keep feeding the hungry caterpillars!
It's important to remember that as the caterpillars get bigger, so will their appetite so keep a close eye on them and make sure you are providing enough fresh Milkweed. After the caterpillar reaches it’s 5th instar (molting stage) it will climb to the top of the container and begin spinning a beautiful silken chrysalis. It will not need any food at this stage so your job is mostly done!
Step 5: Release Your Butterfly Into the Wild
The chrysalis will turn clear before the adult butterfly emerges (fully metamorphosed). It is important not to touch them for at least 5 hours so their wings can dry. Keep an eye on the weather and do not release your Monarch if there is a storm on the horizon. You may need to move the butterfly into a larger container if this is the case such as an upside down laundry basket or a mesh cage.
Special thanks to Debbie Jackson of Monarch Watch for sharing her passion of rearing Monarchs
We also recommend Carol Pasternak's How to Raise Monarch Butterflies, an in-depth guide on Monarch rearing