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State Insect of Alabama Lesson: The Monarch Butterfly

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Alabama is unusual in that it is actually represented by two beautiful state butterflies. One is the eastern tiger swallowtail, a gorgeous yellow and black striped species. This article is about Alabama's other state insect, the monarch butterfly, which was designated in 1989. Several other states have chosen the monarch as their state insect or butterfly, and for good reason -- they are beautiful, wide-spread, and known for spectacular migrations. This article tells you what you need to know about this wonderful butterfly.

The Monarch Butterfly's Scientific Name

Alabama's state insect belongs to a very large butterfly family, the Nymphalidae, that are distributed around the world, from chilly northern regions to steamy tropical zones. Monarchs and their relatives are in the subfamily Danainae. In the US, there are only two common representatives of this group: the monarch and the queen. The queen is darker and less well-known than the bright orange monarch.

The scientific name of the monarch butterfly is Danaus plexippus. That means the genus name is Danaus and the species name is plexippus. Scientific names are always in italics.

As a middle school teacher myself, I wrote this guide to be useful for both students and teachers. It's a great place to start for research ideas and science fair projects!

A monarch butterfly nectaring

A monarch butterfly nectaring

Monarch Facts and Features

The magnificent monarch may be the most well-known and best-loved of all our insects. There is something truly regal about its size, bright colors, and powerful, soaring flight, but its kingly name supposedly comes from the spotted margins of its wings, which resemble the sable-edged robes worn by royalty at the time of its discovery.

Nearly everyone has seen monarchs and is familiar with their mind-boggling migrations and million-butterfly roosting in the mountain forests of Mexico. But there are more reasons to be fascinated with this species. For one thing, it is thought that the poisonous sap in milkweed, the monarch's only food source, makes it distasteful to predators like birds.

Why Are So Many Butterflies Orange?

This may be one reason why so many butterflies are orange—they are evolving to resemble the monarch so birds will think twice before eating them, even if they are perfectly edible. This is the idea behind mimicry, and if the theory is accurate, then the monarch is not only big and beautiful, but highly influential as well.

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Danaus plexippus
  • What does it eat? Milkweeds
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? No, but this species is under threat from industrialized agriculture.

Complete Metamorphosis

"Complete metamorphosis" is the term used to describe the life cycle of insects that go through a four-stage sequence of forms. For butterflies, this means egg-larva-cocoon/chrysalis-adult. It helps to take the butterfly as the example, although dragonflies, bees, wasps, flies, beetles, and many other insects also go through complete metamorphosis. Like butterflies, they all have larvae and all of the other developmental stages.

Alabama's state butterfly is typical of the insects that undergo complete metamorphosis. The egg is laid on the food plant, and the caterpillar that hatches out eats the leaves of the plant. As it grows, it sheds its skin, also known as molting. The stages between molts are called instars, and after the last instar, the caterpillar sheds its skin one more time.

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The last tine the caterpillar sheds its skin, it enters the cocoon/chrysalis phase, known by scientists as "diapause." It's also called a "pupa." Inside the pupa, the insect's cells are rearranging. They actually break down into a kind of goop, and then reassemble to form the body and wings of the adult butterfly or moth.

The final "instar" occurs when the insect hatches out of the pupal skin. It is now ready to mate and continue the cycle. The adult feeds just enough to promote the goal of mating and laying eggs; other than that, it has no purpose on this planet.

A monarch caterpillar

A monarch caterpillar

The Monarch Butterfly's Fascinating Caterpillar

The caterpillar of the monarch butterfly should be familiar to anyone who has looked for insects around milkweed plants. You will never find this species on anything other than some kind of milkweed (Asclepias species). Many insect species are tied to a particular plant, and the monarch is no exception.

If you have ever broken a leaf off of a milkweed plant, you will see where the plant gets its common name -- white sap will quickly begin to ooze from the broken stem. Also known as latex, sap like this contains toxic alkaloids that protect the plant from most animals and insects that might eat the leaves. However the monarch, and a few other insect species, have adapted to the poison. They eat the leaves and, it's thought, some of the poison works into their system and makes them toxic too. In this way they may be protected from being eaten by a predator.

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Monarch flight patterns from March to November

Monarch flight patterns from March to November

The Monarch's Amazing Migration

Much has been written about the annual movement of millions of adult monarch butterflies from their overwintering areas of Mexico to nearly the entire temperate zone of North America. Between March and November, monarch are on the move. This happens over the course of several overlapping broods – laying eggs, developing into adults, and continuing to expand northward.

Monarch you see in your garden in the spring are on the move towards Canada; those floating in the air in the fall are on their way south, as their range contracts.

Monarch butterflies in their winter quarters in the mountains near Angangueo, Michoacan, Mexico

Monarch butterflies in their winter quarters in the mountains near Angangueo, Michoacan, Mexico

Please Help Monarchs by Planting Milkweed!

Milkweed is a native plant that grows almost anywhere, although commercial pesticides and careless land use have made it less common than it was, even vert recently. For this reason monarch numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate. The state insect of Alabama depends on milkweed!

Please help this magnificent animal by planting and nurturing milkweed plants in your garden or yard.

Beautiful milkweed flowers

Beautiful milkweed flowers

Check Out My Other State Insect Articles on Owlcation!


The following sources were used for this guide:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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