This is the time of year when monarch butterflies begin their annual flight to Mexico where they spend the winter months. A young Denison couple will be especially sad to see them go, but it will give them time to do more study of the beautiful butterflies’ habits in preparation for next year.
Aaron and Susan Hamilton visited the Hagerman Wildlife Refuge last year and were so inspired with the beauty of the butterflies that they have been developing a host garden. The couple’s backyard is a perfect place to attract the monarchs and other species and the garden they have created has been attracting butterflies since their arrival back to this area earlier this year.
While butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed leaves, after they emerge as butterflies, they get their nutrients from the nectar from plants. Here they have plenty to eat since those plants grow in abundance including zinnias, lantana, Texas asters, verbenas, pintas, cosmos, butterfly bushes and other plants. Once the monarchs complete the birth cycle, hatch from their chrysalises and spread their wings, they begin eating every blooming national plant but milkweed, however it is where they lay their eggs.
Aaron learned about butterflies’ eggs quite by accident. He had heard about how they got their start and as soon as the milkweed began growing he was out in the backyard looking. A butterfly flew up and right in front of him laid an egg on a leaf. The tiny eggs are about the size of the point on a pencil and unless a person has good eyes and is concentrating on what he is looking for, they are almost invisible.
Aaron and Susan met in day care in Sherman, and have been best friends ever since. As a married couple they moved to Denison from Sherman about two years ago. He is employed in operations at Texas Instruments and Susan is producer of Mom’s Every Day program and in the sales department at KXII.
After their introduction to the monarchs at Hagerman, they decided right away that they wanted to build a host garden and learn more about the monarchs, but the garden attracts other species too. It was an Eastern black swallowtail that Aaron saw laying the egg that Aaron accidentally saw. The swallowtails like dill, parsley, fennel and several other natural plants so their garden attracts many species of butterflies.
I learned quite a bit about monarchs during my short period at the Hamilton’s house and garden. I had always admired the beautiful butterflies that make such pretty photographs, but I really didn’t know that the monarchs were only orange, black and white winged. They are probably the most widely recognized of all American butterflies. Their coloring sends a warning to predators that the monarch is not to be messed with because they are foul tasting and poisonous, according to facts that I found on the internet.
When they are in their larval stage, the caterpillars eat almost exclusively on milkweed while as adults they get their nutrients from the nectar of flowers. That’s when we see them at certain times flying from one flower to another. That’s why it keeps the Hamiltons busy tending the milkweed, just to feed the caterpillars.
I knew that monarchs came from caterpillars, but that’s not the only stage they go through before they become the beautiful butterflies that we see. There are four stages, the egg, the larvae (caterpillar), the chrysalis and then the adult butterfly. Fortunately, milkweed is natural to this area so once the Hamiltons located and ordered the seeds from the internet, their garden was underway as soon as the plants appeared. Most of the milkweed seeds are harvested in the Dallas area, they said. Now that they have a start of milkweed, they hope that it will become native to their yard.
One thing I learned while talking to the Hamiltons is how to tell the sex of the monarchs. They are almost identical except that the male butterfly has a small black spot on each wing that the female does not have.
Once the eggs hatch, they become small caterpillars that feed on the milkweed plant that stores the poisonous toxin in their bodies. That’s why the monarch butterfly tastes so terrible to predators such as insects, spiders, birds and other monarch killers.
Susan said that after the butterfly egg is brought into the house, it hatches in three or four days into a very small caterpillar. That’s when the job of keeping the milkweed available becomes a steady job. After the caterpillar eats and grows for two to three weeks, the monarchs turn into green chrysalis and begin forming their wings. Several examples of the chrysalis were in that stage when I visited. A chrysalis is a small hard-shell casing where a caterpillar’s body tissues and organs are broken down and re-arranged to create the adult. Its jade colored casing is for protection from threats. The Hamiltons keep the caterpillars and chrysalis in net containers in the house until the butterflies are ready to spread their wings and be released. The couple raised about 20 monarchs this summer and the last batch will be leaving here soon.
The monarch’s lifespan varies. Those that are born in the early summer will have the shortest life — about two to five weeks. Monarchs that emerge this time of the year will live longer — around eight to nine months. Many of these will experience the longest migration route for any butterfly in the world.
Every fall, millions of monarchs will travel around 3,000 miles to inhabit the mountains of Central Mexico or the small groves of trees along California’s coast. They are cold-blooded insects that cannot survive long in cold weather. In fact, the Hamiltons explained that we didn’t see any monarchs the day I visited because it was a cool, drizzly day and they need the sunshine to warm their wings.
The Hamiltons explained that official monarch way stations, such as they have established in their backyard, provided by monarch watchers are keeping the milkweed source available for the butterflies as they travel on their annual trek.
The Hamiltons’ butterflies soon will join the thousands of others heading for Central Mexico. I’ll be keeping my eyes pealed, watching for the annual passage as I’m sure many others will be doing too.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her bi-weekly column, which appears in the Wednesday and Sunday editions. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.