Last night, something magical happened in our yard! For many years, I raised monarch butterflies. This year, I have yet to see any eggs or larva on our milkweed plants. We have three patches of milkweed in our yard, each a different kind native to our area of the country. For almost two decades, I’ve educated school children and adults in our community about the monarch life cycle and the plight they now face caused by numerous factors, but most significantly from habitat loss.
Watching the monarch life cycle play out in my yard each summer has brought me an immeasurable amount of joy. It is a cycle that never ceases to amaze and awe when witnessed. From the rapid growth of the caterpillar to the miraculous metamorphosis, it seems there is always something new to witness! This interest in a natural cycle has taught me many things about the fragility of life, our environment, success, and disappointment. It has also provided guidance in my developing philosophy of environmental education. We must do no harm to the awe-inspiring natural cycles and species we observe that share our earth home.
You can imagine my disappointment when, this season, I have not seen any monarch eggs, caterpillars, or chrysalises yet. In truth, I can count the number of monarchs flying or sipping nectar in my yard on one hand.
Last night that disappointment was greatly alleviated by witnessing two monarchs mating! It is a sight I’ve never seen much less been able to document in photographs!
My husband pointed out the two monarchs flying together in our yard and landing on a branch of a large maple tree. From that point, for the next thirty minutes or so, I was transfixed arching my neck to see and photograph these mating monarchs!
After going through my photographs last night, only a few shots are worth sharing. But, I realized that despite all my community education about this species, their life cycle, habitat, and plight, I knew very little about how monarchs mate. This morning, I know more, having looked to those reputable resources I routinely consult.
Male monarchs have scent sacs on their hind wings that distinguish them from female monarchs. They begin to mate after they are three to eight days old according to Monarch Joint Venture. Males often will “tackle” the females in flight and fly with them to the ground where mating takes place. My observation was that the monarchs used a tree limb which is probably much safer from predators interrupting the reproductive act. Just like the caterpillar’s main job is to eat and grow. The adult monarch’s job is to reproduce. One female monarch can lay hundreds of eggs in her short summer lifespan of 2-6 weeks (Journey North) but she only lays one at a time, on milkweed plants. Females begin laying eggs after mating. And, both sexes can mate several times during their lifetime. (Monarch Joint Venture)
I took photos for about 30-45 minutes and then left the monarchs alone in our maple tree as it was getting dark. They were gone this morning. I am so pleased I got to see these monarchs mating. It gives me hope for their future. And, now I can start looking for eggs on our milkweed!