Saturday, April 28, 2012

Monarchs of the ’Dale

Monarch butterflies made a surprise visit
to the garden in early winter, last June.
 The Monarchs of the ’Dale are not to be confused with the nineteenth-century painting by Edwin Landseer, Monarch of the Glen, nor the Highland TV drama of the same name. 

These monarchs are in my backyard in Avondale, Auckland and they’re light and bright: fluttering butterflies rather than tawny beasts with heavy tread or Scots with smouldering good looks.

A colleague gave me seedlings of the monarch caterpillars’ favourite food, swanplant, a few years back. I’ve seen lots of butterflies in the garden since — when it’s warm, even (occasionally) in winter. 

Monarch caterpillars’ feast ...and
 famine. The stripped stalks below
are all that remain of their food.

A Precarious Hold on Life
It’s hard not to worry about them, whatever the weather. They might be called monarchs but any creature with a more precarious hold on its existence, let alone its environment, is hard to imagine. 

The caterpillars in their striped body-suits are no match for wasps. What’s more, their limited diet and voracious appetites at the larval stage mean they quickly empty nature’s larder.

If they make it to the next level, pupation, they attach themselves to anything convenient while they make their transformation. Often that’s the plant they’ve fed on, but it can be something less suitable. 

The year that predation levels outdoors prompted me to start a caterpillar creche in our kitchen, we ended up with chrysalises high (the top of the window frame) and low (the skirting board). One caterpillar chose the electric kettle as a staging post on its pupational journey, and that particular life cycle came to an abrupt end. 

Recently when Carol picked some rhubarb leaves from the garden, she found a monarch chrysalis attached to the centre of one. So I pegged out the leaf (sans stem, which we cooked with the others) on the clothesline. 

The rhubarb stayed put but a wind that’s good for drying clothes will buffet a chrysalis to oblivion, I learned. Though I searched among the strawberry plants below the line, I never did find where this one went once its silken tie gave way.

This autumn, on clearing a long, lean tangle of kikuyu grass between the glasshouse and the swanplant stalks (all that remained), I found a number of young chrysalises that I must have dislodged, and felt obliged to ‘rehang’ them. The glasshouse offers good possies for pupae, and I carefully taped these ones to the edge of a shelf. They hatched, though not all lived long enough to fly

A newly emerged monarch butterfly
in the glasshouse. With effort, it soon

expanded and straightened its wings.
A butterfly first emerges with crumpled wings; it clings to its empty chrysalis, taking time to pump the wings, straighten and dry them so they become the marvels of engineering that we later see in flight.

Where Do They Go?
Now it’s getting colder, the monarch caterpillars are no longer to be found in my garden but the butterflies are still about. Where do they go in winter? A project run by the Monarch Butterfly New Zealand Trust and primary school science teachers is trying to find out, undertaking an ambitious tagging programme. It involves tiny identification labels rather than the felt-tip pens and sprawling scrawl that we often associate with tagging these days.

Unlike the famous migrating American monarchs, it seems our butterflies don’t go far. In a 1960s–70s monarch study by Auckland Museum entomologist Keith Wise, who sadly died this year, 6500 butterflies were tagged. Of the 1011 recovered, only 28 had travelled more than 20km.

In the current project, monarch trust secretary Jacqui Knight says, many butterflies are being tagged right now, and there are sightings of tagged monarchs. If you find a tagged butterfly and report it to the trust, a volunteer records the length of time between tagging and sighting, the distance flown, and other details.

New Zealand monarchs do cluster during winter like the ones we see on nature documentaries, Jacqui says. “We’re just trying to find out more of their overwintering habitats.”

Mating monarchs.
Bringing Butterflies to Your Garden
The trust has devised an online course for people interested in attracting butterflies to their gardens. It starts May 1 (another intake is in July), takes about an hour a week for five weeks and offers information about various butterflies that most urban New Zealanders might expect to attract into their gardens.

These include not just the high-visibility monarchs and cabbage whites but also yellow and red admirals, coppers and blues. “We also mention two moths: Cinnabar and Magpie Moth which many people think are butterflies,” says Jacqui.

The trust’s website is extensive, with very active forums. You can get information there on everything from emergency food supplies to butterfly first aid.


  1. lovely information & photographs [as always]

    i am not, at all, envious of your swan plant forest, or comparing my modest thicket unfavourably

    & i am not in the absolute slightest procrastinating by checking out the butterfly gardening course ...

  2. The grass (or the swanplant) is not greener (or more luxuriant) on my side of the fence: have you noticed that it's entirely made up of bare stalks? Plus, all the swanplants sowed themselves! It's easy when the garden's on autopilot.