Last week we read about the fascinating story of the monarch migration. That monarch is such a traveler we have. This week focuses on their habitat and highlights the best monarch roadside diners around. Monarchs have peculiar tastes in both food and shelter.
First up, a little background. Monarchs don't start out as that beautiful butterfly we see 'nectaring' in the backyard on occasion. They start out as rather unattractive, little blobs, not anything destined to win a beauty contest any time soon. Their attractive mother, however, well she's pretty smart. She chose the perfect spot for her babies, ensuring a good supply of food and a place to grow.
Mother Knows Best
A mother's instinct is to ensure the survival of her children. Monarch moms are especially adept in this department. Flying around, a monarch mom finds the perfect spot. This place needs to be both bed and breakfast for her brood. That place, ironically, turns out to be a spot that is exceptionally unpalatable for just about anything else. That spot is the milkweed.
Native milkweed is an adaptive plant. Anywhere people stir the ground is potential home for a milkweed. It's also a plant that no other wildlife enjoys as dessert. These two characteristics go into creating the perfect habitat for a monarch's children. Milkweed's vigorous nature creates a monarch highway from Mexico all the way to the eastern quadrant of the US. And since it's not a hot ticket on the take out menu, it's a safe spot to raise young.
Along the migration, monarch moms come to rest in places that milkweed resides, along with other nectar plants. Monarchs 'nectar' off plants, breed and then lays eggs, typically on the underside of milkweed leaves.
They Grow Up So Fast
That egg hatches after 3-5 days to reveal a first instar larva (infant caterpillar). This is pretty much a baby only a mother could love. Oh but they grow up so fast. In about 9-15 days, they shoot right through the "terrible twos" and straight into the tumultuous "tweens" and "teens". They eat the entire time. And what's for dinner? Milkweed leaf salad. That caterpillar will eat nothing else. What others find less than tasty a caterpillar gorges upon. Milkweed allows the baby caterpillar to increase its body mass about 2000 times as it grows. It molts, or sheds its skin five times to allow for this rapid increase in size. The period between each molt is called an instar; monarch larvae undergo five instars. "Instar" is an interesting word to describe the caterpillar. That instar eventually turns into a "shooting star" beauty. In about 9-14 days, the chrysalis cracks open and ushers forth a beautiful butterfly.
Despite smart home selection, caterpillar survival rates are low. It's a tough world out there for kids. Only about 5% survive to become fifth instars. Others fall prey to a variety of predators, including ants, spiders, true bugs, beetles, and lacewing larvae. It's not easy growing up in a milkweed motel. Those that do survive carry on the traditions of their ancestors and head off to travel, eat and breed like generations before.
Monarch Bed & Breakfast
This monarch bed and breakfast, what is it? For the caterpillar, it's simple. It's milkweed. Nothing else. A baby monarch would be completely content if there were nothing but pasture after pasture of milkweed motels. In the monarch world they call these 'host plants'. Host milkweeds come in a variety of accommodations to suit.
Your entry model, and the most enjoyed is the "Common" or "Syriaca". Common milkweed tends to be the most preferred host plant. It's a large and vigorous abode. You see many "Syriaca" communities sprout up along the sunny or sometimes shady Monarch Highway.
But, for those with more finicky tastes we have several milkweed models available in our Midwest market.
Those preferring a less dramatic house, we offer the "Prairie" style. Similar to "Common", this oasis is a bit more demure. It's less aggressive, but still displays the sparkling beauty of a full-domed, albeit smaller, pink flower head in a sunny location.
Moving on, for those in search of an arid oasis, we showcase the "Sands" motel. The "Sands" is for those seeking retreat in a dryer location preferring either a sunny or sometimes shady spot to grow. These retreats tolerate more sandy terrain.
Finally we offer the "Butterfly" abode. "Butterfly" subdivisions break with tradition, displaying bold colored communities of tangerine orange flowers.
That wraps of the housing tour for monarchs. Now we just need to find a place to get a bite to eat.
While the milkweed B&B's are a great choice for caterpillars, our monarch parents need a bit more variety. Yes, they do eat or 'nectar' off milkweed flowers, but they need more. Their taste in food is broader than their babies. This is where the second part of the monarch world habitat comes in. Nectar plants.
Nectar plants are any flowering plant that provides a good food source for monarch butterflies. They tend to be fairly aromatic, somewhat brightly colored, flat in flower shape (acts as a landing pad) with plenty of nectar deep inside. These plants are not used as homes for young. This is adult time. They are the "roadside diners" for monarch adults. In general monarch diners contain a few key features. They offer a good spot for a drink, a good spot for lounging, and a good smorgasbord of nectar delectables. A fountain or birdbath makes a good butterfly bar. The after hours bar or lounge needs to provide protection from the weather as well. And for the 'eats' well, there are many. It's "Farm to Table" all the way for monarchs and so when they arrive whatever is in season is what is on the menu. Diners that offer current "fresh produce", nectar, all season long are the most popular. That way they attract and serve many a weary traveler no matter the time of year.
Just as you or I enjoy a good roadside retreat while traveling so too do our monarch friends. Hope you enjoyed learning about monarch habitat. Next week, we'll dive into the importance of roadside retreats and what happens when the Monarch Highway is a wee bit too desolate.