Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Echinacea flowers attracts monarch butterfly

A few days ago I watched a Gulf fritillary butterfly gather nectar from one echinacea bloom (purple coneflower) after another.  Yesterday a monarch butterfly did the same thing.

Monarch butterfly on purple conflower

As a species, monarchs are famously migratory, flying thousands of miles every year to escape cold weather.  But some monarchs never migrate at all. Those are "resident butterflies" living in Florida's warm climate year-round.

Butterflies can't fly if their body temperature falls below 55 degrees 

Regardless of where monarchs live, during their caterpillar stage, all monarchs feed (devour would be a more accurate term) exclusively on the leaves and stems of milkweed plants.

Hungry monarch caterpillars feast on a milkweed plant.  Milkweed is the only thing caterpillars eat before turning into butterflies

Nutrients from milkweed not only nourish the caterpillars, they provide a natural defense against predators.  Caterpillars ingest toxic chemicals in the plant when they eat milkweed leaves.  Those chemicals stay in their system during the pupa stage as they become butterflies. Birds, frogs, mice and lizards that prey upon butterflies learn to stay away from monarchs because the chemicals in their body make them taste terrible.

Monarch butterflies are poisonous to their predators but not to people.

During the chrysalis (pupa) stage, toxic chemicals from milkweed pass from the caterpillar into the developing butterfly

After leaving the chrysalis and becoming butterflies, monarchs are much less choosy about food choices.  They seek nectar from many different types of plants including echinacea.

Tagged monarch on native milkweed

Monarch on orange cosmos

Monarch on echinacea

I often have trouble identifying monarchs, confusing them with viceroy butterflies, which have similar coloring and patterns.  Both have orange and black wings with white spots and black lines.

For me, the easiest way to tell them apart is to look for an extra black line across the topside of the lower two wings.  Since monarchs don't have that line, when I see it I know I'm looking at a viceroy.

A black line that runs along the bottom portion of the wing helps differentiate the viceroy  (above) from the monarch (below)

So many butterflies are out and about now that the weather is consistently warm.  Watching the monarch sip nectar from the echinacea flowers yesterday was yet another garden treat.  First a Gulf fritillary, now a monarch...I can't wait to see what fluttering beauties tomorrow brings!


  1. Thanks for the info on the different butterflies--I had no idea there were two that looked so similar.

    1. The viceroy is only one of several monarch 'look-alike' butterflies but it's the one I think is hardest to differentiate from the monarch at first glance. If only the butterflies (and birds) would stay still a little longer, they'd make IDing them so much easier!