Mysteries of the Monarchs

Did You Know…?

  • …that butterflies are found throughout the world, on every continent except Antarctica.
  • …that there are some 20,000 different species of butterflies.
  • …that butterflies may have a wingspan up to 11 inches.
  • …that butterflies taste through their feet. Then, if they like it, they drink through an elongated tube much like a drinking straw, which is coiled underneath their head.
  • …that a newly hatched caterpillar grows very fast—a six-pound human baby that grew at the same rate would weigh eight tons in two weeks.
  • …that Monarchs navigate by hitchhiking—they hitch rides on winds, storms, and even hurricanes!
  • …that migrating Monarchs often travel at altitudes of about 7,000 feet.
  • …that migrating Monarchs have been seen by airline pilots at heights up to 29,000 feet.
  • …that Monarch butterflies can fly about 650 miles without alighting.
  • …that with the help of tailwinds and riding air currents, Monarchs have crossed the Pacific, hopping from North America to Hawaii, to New Zealand, the Philippines, and Australia.
  • …that Monarchs are great migrators—those living west of the Rockies migrate about 1,000 miles southwestward, to the California Coast. Those living east of the Rockies fly over 2,000 miles, to Central Mexico.
  • …that migrating Monarchs never live long enough to make the same trip twice, yet the butterflies light on the same trees, year after year.
  • …that as caterpillar or butterfly, the boldly marked monarch needs no camouflage; for unknown reasons, parasites or predators seldom attack it.

That distinctively colored butterfly which you see flitting gracefully from one blossom to another in summer, with reddish brown wings, marked by deep black veins and a black border, is, at close range, only an insect. But even an insect shows the wonderful genius of our great Creator.

Is that saying too much? Just look at a few facts.

First of all, the elaborately colored butterfly you saw was very likely a Monarch. And the Monarch is one of about 20,000 various types of butterflies. The butterflies belong to the larger group known as insects, of which about 2,000,000 species have been identified.

The Monarch has a lot in common with the rest of its kind. Like all flying insects, it has four wings and six legs, and is equipped with a pair of antennae on the front of the head.

Perhaps most distinguishing about the insect family are the totally different stages of life through which they develop: egg, larva, pupa and adult. This ingenious process, known as a complete metamorphosis, is one of the marvels of our Creator’s handiwork.

The butterfly’s life cycle begins when the female Monarch lays a cluster of eggs on a growing plant. But she does not choose just any plant. Mother Monarch “knows” to select the one and only plant which the new baby caterpillars (larvae) will eat: the milkweed (how did the tiny helpless larvae survive before she learned by evolution that the milkweed was the only plant they liked?) Since milkweeds are common in the northeastern part of the United States and in southern Canada, the Monarch is most prolific in these areas.

When do the eggs hatch? Not just any time of year. The time for the young larva to emerge from the egg is carefully controlled to coincide with suitable weather conditions and the growth of the food plant. (Did evolution ever design such a pattern?) There is yet another point: the tiny butterfly egg lying on a leaf for several days must “breathe.” How is this possible, when the leaf of the plant is so often wet with dew and rain? The eggshell has been elaborately supplied with a system of air passages which allow oxygen to be exchanged with the environment whether the egg is wet or dry-did such a wonder just “happen*rdquo;?

In about four or five days after being laid, the eggs are ready to hatch, and the tiny caterpillar (less than one eighth inch long) begins to eat his way out of the egg. Once free of the egg, he turns and eats the eggshell, for it contains nutrients necessary to his development. (What happenstance of evolution taught him to do this?)

For the whole of his short lifetime (about two weeks), all he does is eat. Caterpillars consume about 20 times their weight in food, feeding on the leaves of the plant on which they were hatched.

Quite understandably, the rapidly growing insect quickly outgrows his tight skin. What does he do? Each time his skin becomes too tight, the caterpillar simply crawls out of the old skin and grows a new, larger one. This happens as many as five or six times while it is preparing for the next stage of its life.

Before shedding its skin for the last time, the caterpillar, somehow “knowing” it is about to change its form, spins tiny silk fibers which secure it firmly to the stem or leaf of the plant. (How did the ugly-looking larva learn by evolution to spin silk?) At this point its latest new skin hardens or crystallizes, and in this chrysalis (the pupa stage) the caterpillar is transformed into a butterfly. The length of time required for the change varies with different species, ranging from two weeks to two months.

When the butterfly is fully grown, it splits its shell and crawls out. Upon emerging, its wings are wet and crumpled, but the butterfly somehow “knows” that it must sit very still with its wings downward for about two hours, while the wings fill with body fluids, unfold and dry. Otherwise the wings would be damaged. (Did the butterfly learn this by the trial-and-error methods of evolution? Isn’t it all a marvelous demonstration of our Creator’s design?)

Food for the Monarchs

What do butterflies eat? They live on the nectar of flowers, and here again they have a unique design which shows the wonders of our Creator. Bees are slender and can easily crawl inside the blossom to obtain nectar. Butterflies would ruin their large wings if they had to eat like bees do. But they have been given a different means. First, butterflies taste through their feet. If they like the taste, they uncoil a special elongated tube, which they keep right under their head, and sip the nectar. When ready to fly again in search of more nectar, they simply re-coil their drinking straw and take flight. (Can we imagine how butterflies ate during the millions of years they were evolving this mechanism?!)

Scales: Butterfly “Dust”

Did you ever catch a butterfly and notice some fine dust on your hand? That “dust” is the butterfly’s scales. Every butterfly is completely sheathed in tiny scales from the tip of its wings even to its legs. Seen under a microscope, the scales look like shingles on a roof, but to the human eye they are so fine they look more like dust

These scales are not without purpose. They give the butterfly its colors, control its body temperature, and serve as a warning to its enemies. (What did butterflies do before they evolved these all-purpose scales?) The butterfly’s chief enemy is the bird, which hunts the caterpillars on the ground and can catch a butterfly on the wing. (Monarch butterflies are relatively safe from most birds, because the birds seem to know that they taste bad!)

Some butterflies are somewhat safe because they resemble other bad tasting insects in color and wing-pattern. Others blend with their environment and so are not noticed. The Indian Leaf butterfly is a master of deception—on the wing it is a beautiful purple, but when it alights, it folds its wings and reveals a brown underside that resembles the bark of the tree on which it lands. Shall we say that the butterflies “learned” over millions of years to change their colors and disguise themselves— or shall we give credit to our wonderful Creator!

Masters of Migration

We see even more marvelous evidence of our Creator’s work in the Monarch’s navigational skills.

Not only do they travel thousands of miles and arrive at the same cities year after year, but they also go to the same trees. And—to add to the wonder— the butterflies that arrive “home” after the winter’s flight are not the same butterflies that left the fall before—they are the next generation, produced en route.

Monarchs have been tagged, but no single butterfly has been known to complete the entire round trip, although most complete the journey southward.

Here in New York State, Monarchs gather in September to begin the journey southward. Reaching warmer temperatures, they winter, then begin the return trip. During the return journey the Monarchs stop along the way, deposit their eggs, and die. The eggs hatch and mature, then the new generation continues the journey northward, arriving at the same place which their parents left the autumn before! (Can we credit this marvel to evolution?)

Eastern Monarchs travel in swarms to Mexico, about 4,000 miles round trip. Scientists tracking them have found large swarms gliding on wind currents at an altitude of about 7,000 feet. Airline pilots have reported seeing Monarchs as high as 29,000 feet. Their trip to Mexico takes them about two months, perhaps less, depending on the weather. But every year they stop to rest on the same trees used by their relatives in previous years. It is estimated that as many as ten million per acre congregate in a certain forest near Mexico City, some trees being literally covered with butterflies.

Western Monarchs, those living west of the Rocky Mountains, migrate about a thousand miles south and west to the Pacific coast of southern California. Like their eastern cousins, they go to the same towns and choose the same trees that have been used by generations before them.

Some Monarchs have even been known to venture across the Pacific Ocean, colonizing in Hawaii and Australia, occasionally reaching Africa and Europe.

Without guide or compass, how does the delicate Monarch do it? How does it find its way over thousands of miles of land, flying high in the air? Scientists can only speculate. We choose to give honor to our Creator—how better can we account for the countless wonders around us! How insulting to the Divine omniscience to credit such a wonder to mere chance! Truly, the power that guides them is Divine!

Scientific Data in this Article is From:

  • “Butterflies and Moths,” by J. C. Palliter, published in The Book of Popular Science, Vol. 3, pages 193-202
  • Zoobooks, Vol. 7 No. 9 “Butterflies,” June, 1990
  • “The Mysteries of the Monarch,” by Peter Farb, published in Marvels and Mysteries of Our Animal World, published by the Readers Digest Association, Pleasantville, NY, 1964, pages 104-106
  • Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 21, pages 640-650; and Vol. 14, pages 663-699.