Consider The Monarch

On the Cheyenne River Buffalo Ranch, we do some pretty big things to regenerate the prairie grasslands, which includes bringing back the bison.
Big Bull Bison with Bison Cow
But this is not the extent of our conservation efforts. We also do smaller things, such as planting flowers and plants for the pollinators. These include Purple Coneflower, Goldenrod, Blazing Star, Butterfly Bush, and several varieties of Milkweed, just to name a few.
Milkweed Flower
Milkweed Flower Buds
Although, all of these species are native to North America, and are abundant on our ranch, they are dwindling throughout the continent. This is due to habitat loss caused by industrialized agriculture, pesticides and herbicides, adverse land use, illegal logging, and climate change.
Milkweed Flower Head
The loss of these native plants has caused severe stress on the survival of the pollinators, including the now endangered Monarch butterfly.  
Monarch Butterfly
When considering the Monarch butterfly, one must consider Milkweed, as it is the host plant for Monarchs. 
Milkweed Flower
Milkweed Pod Head
The Monarchs lay their eggs exclusively on the leaves of the milkweed plant, and after only four days, the eggs hatch into a larvae/caterpillar.
Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar
The tiny Monarch caterpillar will start eating the Milkweed leaves straight away, pausing only when it molts. It will molt, crawling out of its skin into new skin as it grows, five times during the caterpillar stage. 
Milkweed Pods
Although milkweed is toxic (contains cardenolides) to other insects, the leaves are the only food that Monarch caterpillars eat. The toxicity of the milkweed leaves make the Monarch caterpillar an undesirable food source for typical predators, such as birds.
Milkweed Flower Buds
Milkweed patches or gardens are beautiful and are also a micro-ecosystem within a macro-ecosystem, attracting many species of beetles, spiders, grasshoppers, toads and snakes.
Milkweed Bugs & Milkweed Beetles
Pictured above: Large Milkweed Bug, Tortoise Beetle Larvae, Longhorn Milkweed Beetle.
Many of these species are orange and black too, a defense mechanism called "aposematism", which warns predators of their toxic, bitter taste.
Wolf spider in Milkweed Eating Grasshopper
Pictured above: Wolf Spider, eating a grasshopper.
Garter Snake in Milkweed

Pictured above: Garter Snake hunting grasshoppers.

Two Stripe Grasshopper on Milkweed

Pictured above, the Two Stripe Grasshopper, or perhaps it is the organic matter captured from a UFO?  ; )

After eighteen days in the caterpillar stage, the Monarch caterpillar will attach itself to a stem or other surface and will pupate into a pupa/chrysalis. The short time lapse video below is fascinating!

The chrysalis is bright green with gold and black specks when it first forms, but after one day, the chrysalis will harden and turn a muted green shade. 
Chrysalis in two stages

 The above images illustrate, a newly formed chrysalis, and another that is a couple of days old infected by a Tachinid fly.

Toward the end of the chrysalis stage, the chrysalis color will become transparent and prior to the butterfly emerging you will be able to see the Monarchs colors within the chrysalis.
Black Mature Chrysalis
Once the Monarch has emerged from the chrysalis, it will stay connected, fluttering its wings while it hangs until they are strong, before it takes flight. 
monarch butterfly coming out of chrysalis
The Monarch migration is one that is beyond extraordinary, traveling over three thousand miles. During the migration, four generations of Monarchs are born, with each of the first three generations going through the stages above. The Monarch butterflies will dine on nectar during their short lives of two to six weeks. The fourth generation reserves its energy and heads south to overwinter in central Mexico. In the spring the whole cycle starts all over again.
Orange Milkweed Flower - Butterfly Bush
All the residents on the ranch get pretty excited about our small acts of conservation and the opportunity to be a part of the Monarch and Milkweed recovery. 
Child using a magnifying glass to look at plants
But the Monarch remains up against it, with less than a 10% survival rate. This is due to many of the issues listed above, plus parasitic diseases and predation.
Milkweed Pod Opened with Seeds & Silk
There are many things that we can all do, such as planting beautiful milkweed gardens and flowers that provide nectar for pollinators, as well as not using pesticides or herbicides in our lawns and gardens. These are small things, but together they could have a big impact!
If you are interested in learning more about the Monarch, here are a variety of resources:

Photo credit: Jill O'Brien & Emily Spiegelman

Video credit: Emily Spiegelman



  • Posted on by jill

    Hi Chuck. Well… you just made my day! Thank you! As a fan of Barbara Kingsolver, I will be sure to pick up Flight Behavior! Thank you for the recommendation!

  • Posted on by Chuck

    Dear Jill,

    Your photography is amazing! Thank you for sharing your work to help Monarchs and other pollinators. We're doing the same here in NE Ohio, planting milkweed on our property.

    We swim in Lake Erie in the mornings and get a front row seat to the Monarch migration as they fly along the cliffs on their way to Mexico. It's a bittersweet event, as it also means that the days of our swims are running short. Ah, well.

    Not sure if you get much time for fiction, but Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior offers one possibility for the Monarchs in the face of climate change.

    Thanks, always, for everything you do.

    Best, Chuck

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