Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Desert Queen

If you look carefully, even in the depths of what we call winter here in Phoenix, you can find several stages of the Queen Butterfly, and maybe all four! The best place to search is on a milkweed plant, which is where eggs are laid, caterpillars munch, and chrysalises are formed.

Queen butterflies usually lay their eggs on milkweeds so that when the caterpillar hatches out, its favorite food is right beneath its feet. Desert milkweed is commonly planted in suburban gardens and commercial landscaping, although it is native to areas further south and west. Twining milkweed grows wild along washes or in irrigated areas where it climbs trees, shrubs and fences. Finding butterfly eggs on a milkweed takes a lot of patience, but if you look carefully under the leaves or on the stems, you may find what looks like tiny round pale green or white beads. This is where the magic of metamorphosis begins.

When the eggs hatch, the caterpillar gets to work doing what it does best: eating. Like the Queen’s better-known look-alike, the Monarch butterfly, milkweed sap that is eaten by the caterpillars renders both the larval and adult butterfly poisonous to any bird or other critter that might try to eat them. Potential predators quickly learn to avoid eating black-and-white striped larvae with yellow spots or the equally toxic orange and black butterflies.

Both Monarchs and Queens have orange wings with black edges and white spots, but the Monarch has darker black and brighter orange, and is a bit larger. Queens are more of a rusty orange and much more common in the Phoenix area. Queens also stay in the area year round, unlike Monarchs, which are famous for annual migrations to and from warmer winter climates where they form huge colonies resting in trees. You can easily tell a male from a female in both species by the small black patches on the inside edge of the males’ wings that release a scent to attract females. (This makes me wonder: Should a male Queen be called a “King” butterfly?)

Of all the butterfly stages, the jewel like chrysalis is the most magical to me. The smooth porcelain white shell is gilded with gold spots, and hangs by a thin stalk from the milkweed plant where the caterpillar came to rest. My son and I found a chrysalis gleaming in the sun on our morning walk to school one day last spring. Looking more closely, we found a caterpillar quietly resting, and then a butterfly landed to sip nectar from the milkweed flowers. We didn't find any eggs, but seeing the other three stages all on one plant intrigued Orion so much that he sat down on the sidewalk and watched for a long time. After a while, he got up and exclaimed, "Nature sure is amazing! Wait till I tell the kids at school about this!"

You can invite Queens and other butterflies into your home garden. The key is to grow wildflowers and shrubs that are the host plant, or species that the butterflies will lay their eggs on and caterpillars need to eat. This also means that when you see a caterpillar chowing down on your plants, you need to let it be so that it will mature and transform into a chrysalis. For Queens and Monarchs, you’ll definitely need milkweeds, which are available at many local nurseries.

If you find a caterpillar, and want to watch it grow and turn into a butterfly, be sure to gather and feed it leaves and stems of the plant you found it on. When the butterfly emerges from a chrysalis, be sure to give it plenty of time and room to spread its wings, then let it go free!

To learn more about our local butterflies, butterfly gardening and information about butterfly hikes with experts, check out the Central Arizona Butterfly Association (CAZBA) website at www.cazba.org.

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