Readers’ wildlife photos

May 10, 2023 • 8:15 am

Today we have a batch of butterfly photos from Mary Rasmussen.  Her captions and narrative are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

The Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

We have many butterflies near our cabin along the northern shore of Lake Michigan. The plentiful Monarch butterflies have been a joy to watch and photograph.

Like all butterflies, Monarchs undergo complete metamorphosis. Below are photos that show the Monarch’s four phases: egg, larva, pupa and adult. This process takes about 4-6 weeks, but is very temperature dependent.

This is a Monarch butterfly egg on a Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) flower petal. The egg is about the size of the head of a pin.

The Monarch larva chews its way out of the egg (left) and then eats the egg (right.)

The larva develops into the familiar striped caterpillar. They feed exclusively on Milkweed. It is an eating machine and will molt five times as it grows.

The caterpillar has attached a silk pad to the underside of a milkweed leaf, grabs the pad with its back prolegs and forms a “J” shape, signaling that it will soon pupate.

This is the caterpillar’s final molt. The skin splits along its back and it wriggles to shed the skin.

The Monarch forms a chrysalis case (left.) When the chrysalis becomes transparent (right) the butterfly will likely emerge within a day, usually in the morning.

The adult Monarch butterfly emerges from its chrysalis. It hangs on while it pumps fluid from its abdomen to expand its wings. The butterfly will hang for a few hours to allow its wings to harden enough to fly. I think this is a great-great-grandchild of the Monarchs that flew to Mexico the previous fall.

It’s easy to tell females from males. The female (left) has thicker black veins. The male (right) has thinner veins and 2 spots that are thought to be scent glands, one on each hind wing.

This is a migrating butterfly on a Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia). The Monarchs love these flowers. They are annuals and I start them from seed as they aren’t usually available at garden stores.

Our cabin is on a peninsula that hangs down into Lake Michigan. Thousands of butterflies are funneled from southern Canada and north Michigan down our peninsula’s shore  on their way to Mexico. Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium fistulosum) is also very popular with the Monarchs. Most years it blooms during their migration.

I use a Nikon D500 camera with Nikon VR 105mm f/2.8G macro lens. For the eggs I used a Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro lens with extension tubes.

Recommended reading: The Family Butterfly Book by Rick Mikula.

This book gives practical advice on observing, raising and feeding butterflies. It even explains how to tape a butterfly’s torn wing so that it can still fly and feed on flowers. This was a great beginning resource for me.

14 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos

  1. Beautiful Monarch pictures. I’ve never seen the caterpillars emerge from the eggs. Nor did I know that they like Joe-Pyle Weed, which is a beautiful and tall weed indeed! My wife and I once saw thousands of Monarchs in massive migration colony along the California coast. To protect our declining Monarchs: Save the milkweeds!

  2. Glorious photos, Mary! I once came home from teaching to see maybe 1000 of the critters in the trees in my backyard near Toronto. This was maybe 10 years ago, and haven’t seen them since.

  3. Fantastic photos! Question about the location chosen by the caterpillar for hanging in a J-shape. I thought they crawl away from the milkweed plants to find other structures to hang from. I have a patch of common milkweed, planted from wild seed I gathered. Monarchs come every year, but several years ago the eggs and caterpillars were especially numerous. The caterpillars crawled off to hang on nearby deck railings, cedar shingles on the side of my garage, other plants, even my kayak. At one time that year I counted 89 chrysalises! But none on the milkweed plants. I thought at the time that made sense because the caterpillars and the newly formed chrysalises were probably pure milkweed mush, and might be eaten by other caterpillars. Not so? Yet in my yard none stayed on the milkweed plants to make the chrysalises. I’m interested to know more about this.

    1. That’s a good observation Marilee! I have seen the caterpillars attach themselves to a milkweed plant, but not often. For this photo I cut some milkweed in a farmer’s field that had newly laid eggs on the leaves. (Farmers are happy to have it removed.) I poked the stalks through a piece of foil covering a vase with water. I put the vase in a butterfly enclosure outside as it seems that the developing caterpillars need to be exposed to natural light to develop their directional flight. I put branches in the enclosure but it chose the leaf. I brought the vase inside to photograph the caterpillar and the chrysalises. Thanks for asking!

  4. Each and every photo is quite remarkable and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole tour of the butterfly-making process. And, I had never seen a photo of a butterfly egg before.

  5. Really beautiful shots, especially of the egg on the flower petal. I was surprised to see that the monarchs lay their eggs on petals. How long do those flowers last?

    1. Thanks Lou, after planting several kinds of Milkweed I was surprised to see how often the Monarchs lay their eggs on the flowers. The colorful flowers make a good photo background. The flowers must be very tender because newly hatched caterpillars on leaves also head towards them and devour them. I’m guessing the flowers last a week or more, but are usually eaten before they wither so I’m not sure.

  6. Beautiful photos and excellent commentary. I used to gather Monarch caterpillars in jars filled with milkweed and watch them as they metamorphosed. Though I never noticed an egg or the first pupa. Thanks for all the details of their development, it brought back fond memories.

  7. How magnificent! I never knew the chrysalis became transparent like that. It’s fortunate your Monarchs don’t seem to have too many problems with parasitic wasps and flies. Around here, I’ve heard that relatively few Monarch caterpillars survive to adulthood because of insect parasites.

  8. Oh this series is so lovely. Didn’t realize until now how beautiful the eggs were.
    Thanks for sharing!

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