We are lucky here in South Florida. Our butterfly population flourishes during the summer months due to our hot, tropical weather. And because it stays relatively warm, even during the winter months, we have a healthy year-round butterfly population. There are, however, a few butterflies that still migrate during the winter season. The Monarch is one of them.
This is the first article in a six-part series featuring the butterflies of Florida. I’m going to begin with the Monarch, of course, which is probably the most recognized butterfly in the world.
Monarchs, Queens and Soldiers are members of the Danaus genus. Their larvae all feed on the same host plant (a plant that female butterflies lay their eggs on). That plant is milkweed.
There are hundreds of milkweed varieties, but only a few are sustainable in Florida. These include scarlet milkweed (Asclepias), which can be either red or yellow; giant milkweed (Calotropis); orange milkweed (tuberosa); white milkweed(perennis); and balloon milkweed (Asclepias physocarpa). Milkweed actually does double duty, acting as a host plant and a nectar plant (a plant that adult butterflies feed on).
Did you know that to potential predators, Monarchs taste terrible? Milkweed, the Monarch’s favorite plant, contains a toxin that makes them extremely distasteful to predators. Another interesting fact is that you can distinguish a Queen’s larvae from a Monarch’s by determining how many antenna sets they have. A Queen has three sets, one on the head, middle and rear. A Monarch has only two, one on the head and one on the rear.
Now let’s talk about the Monarch’s dating habits. All the males in the Danaus genus have scent sacks on their hind wings, which emit a smell that attracts females. Monarchs are easy to identify because they are bright orange, whereas Queens and Soldiers are more brownish in color. However, they all have white spots bordering the outsideof their fore and hind wings.
If you’ve never seen a Monarch chrysalis, then you’ve missed something truly special. They’re intricate little works of art. The most prominent color is a soft jade green, complemented by a rich gold band that encircles the top. Queen and Soldier chrysalises look similar, however, the Queen’s chrysalis will sometimes have a pink hue. Over the years, many jewelers and craftsmen have tried unsuccessfully to duplicate these delicate masterpieces, but Mother Nature still holds the patent.
Monarchs need all the extra assistance we can give them now, so plant more milkweed in your garden, in pots or in window boxes. I guarantee that soon after, you’ll have plenty of beautiful butterflies fluttering around your yard. The good news is that in the South the Monarch population is currently on the rise, which makes us butterfly enthusiasts very happy.
Next time, I will cover three Heliconian butterflies in the Nymphalidae family, which arefound in abundance here in Florida: the Zebra Longwing (Florida’s state butterfly), Julia and Gulf Fritillary. In the meantime, KEEP BUTTERFLYING!!!
Mike Malloy, local author and artist known as “The Butterfly Man” has been a Naples resident since 1991. A Collier County Master Gardener, he has written two books entitled “Butterfly Gardening Made Easy for Southwest Florida,” and “Tropical Color – A Guide to Colorful Plants for the Southwest Florida Garden”, and currently writes articles on various gardening topics for several local publications. Mike has planted and designed numerous butterfly gardens around Naples including many schools, the City of Naples, Rookery Bay, the Conservancy and Big Cypress. Bring your gardening questions to the Third Street Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings or on Thursdays at the Naples Botanical Garden where he does a Plant Clinic or visit his website, www.naplesbutterfly.com. He also can be heard every Saturday at 4 PM on his call-in garden radio show, “Plant Talk with Mike Malloy,” on 98.9-WGUF.