Queen, Monarch Caterpillars and Butterflies: How to Tell the Difference

Found a Monarch caterpillar on my milkweed!

                               –my friend Hugh Daschbach, via text message

How to tell the difference between a Queen or Monarch caterpillar

Every year around this time as the Queen butterflies start to show up, we get lots of questions about how to tell the difference between Queens, Danaus gilippus, and Monarchs, Danaus plexippus.  And with the warm weather that has gripped South Texas throughout November and now December, many of us are still finding eggs and caterpillars in the leaves of our milkweed.   Queens are here en masse.

Three Queen butterflies

Queens have been flying and reproducing this Fall.

As it turned out, the caterpillar in question that my friend Hugh texted me about (excuse the typos) was in fact a Queen.  The giveaway:  it had three sets of protuberances–frequently called antennae, but actually only one set are antennae and the other two are filaments.  The antennae have special sensing properties while the filaments are mostly for show, and to throw off predators.

Queens on Purple Mistflower

Queens on Purple Mistflower

Hugh’s confusion is common:  because of their similar color, size and affinity for milkweed as a host plant, Queens and Monarchs are often mistaken for each other in their various life stages.

But once you look closely, it’s not that hard to tell the difference between Monarchs and Queens.

First, Queens appear solid orange compared to the varying shades of a Monarch.  In the photo above, notice how with their wings folded, the Queens’ solid dark orange is interrupted with occasional white dots–nothing like the striking stained glass veins and color pattern of the Monarch below.

Resident Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

With their wings open, the difference is even more obvious.  The Queen is solid, the Monarch has varied coloration.  Both of the examples below are male butterflies, as you can see by the prominent display of their family jewels–the defunct pheremone sacs that presumably once drove the lady butterflies wild.

Queen butterfly, wings open

Queen butterfly.  It’s a male.

Female Queens and Monarchs don’t have these prominent markings with wings open.   In Monarchs, the black veins are generally wider and more pronounced in the females.

Monarch butterflies are on the move in Texas

Male Monarch butterfly.  Notice the two dark spots, his “family jewels.”

In the caterpillar stage, the most obvious difference is that Queens have one set of antennae and two sets of filaments, while Monarchs have one set of antennae and one set of filaments. Antennae are on the head of the butterfly, while filaments are at the rear–and in the case of the Queen, in the middle.

Queen caterpillar with three filaments

Queen caterpillar sports three sets of protuberances–two sets of filaments, one set of antennae.

Notice in the photo above, the Queen has what appear to be THREE sets of protuberances.  The Monarch caterpillar only has TWO.  Both wear distinctive yellow, black and white striped suits.   The Queen often will have a slight red blend as the filaments connect to the caterpillar’s torso.  The patterns of the stripes can vary depending on time of year, humidity and diet.

Monarch butterfly caterpillar has two filaments

Monarch butterfly caterpillar has one set of antennae, one of filaments–two total sets.

Scientists don’t fully understand the biological purpose of the filaments, which seem to reach out and “feel” the universe around them.   They swerve and turn in various directions, almost punctuating caterpillar moves like a roving eye or arched eyebrows on the human face.

For the sake of identification, let’s just say their purpose is to signal the difference between Queens and Monarchs.   For more on filaments and what we do and don’t know about them, check this link on the Monarch Watch page.

Queen and Monarch chrysalises

Queen and Monarch chrysalises. Monarch in the middle.

In the chrysalis stage, Queen chrysalises are almost identical to Monarchs, except they are generally smaller.  They also sometimes offer a subtle pink hue, as evidenced in the picture above, Monarch in the middle, Queen on the sides.

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18 thoughts on “Queen, Monarch Caterpillars and Butterflies: How to Tell the Difference

  1. Appreciate all of the pictures and information about butterflys. When possible, can you place some object, like a key, in the pictures for size reference?

  2. I have been raising monarchs for several months, and have found what appears to be a monarch caterpillar with 2 antennae, 2 sets of filaments immediately behind that, and the tail filaments, for a total of 8 antennae/filaments. Other than that it appears to be longer than usual, but the same monarch colors. Do you recognize this? It is nearly ready to turn…I have never seen one like this before. Any clues?

  3. I found a caterpillar on the greens, of a carrot. My five year old and I have been feeding it in a commercial net butterfly garden. It looks very much like a monarch caterpillar but when touched, on the face, two yellow antennae extended and retracted. Any clue what it might be?

  4. Appreciate all o the info about butterflies, very helpful.
    We are doing a monitoring on the migration route in Tamauipas Mexico and your info is excellent. Thanks!

  5. Monarchs in Massachusetts have been scarce in the past two years. Before this I have raised and released about 250 Monarchs a year. I have butterfly bushes and milkweed plants in my yard and many other kinds of butterfly plants, yet they have declined. I have promoted to others that milkweed needs to be left alone when found and not pulled up. We do have other butterflies like Swallowtails visit and plant their type of food. Now, it is up to people to demand that Monsanto-like chemicals be stopped if we want to continue to see all butterflies.

  6. Living in Mass. usually means your winters make the milkweeds go into dormancy. Don’t pull up milkweeds. Depending on the age and type of milkweed you have they will either “die” back all the way down to ground level or they will just lose their leaves. If yo want to blame Monsanto or any of your neighbors for spraying insecticides look for caterpillars throwing up of having diarrhea. Otherwise their frass (poop) should look like a black piece of Grape Nuts. Remember that only 10% of eggs grow up to be butterflies.

  7. Note that the two anterior filaments are not antennae. The antennae are actually minute structures just above the mandibles.

  8. I found eggs on my milkweeds last night. I know for sure 3 of them look just like my monarchs from last year but I have many many more that look the same except they are smaller. Could these be queens? Or another type of butterfly? Or do monarchs sometime lay smaller eggs? Thanks!

  9. If we’re not to blame Monsanto’s Round Up, then what other explanations are there for the huge decline in Monarch migration?

  10. Thanks for this article. I have some nearly ripe Monarch ‘pillars, and I found a few itty bitty ones. The itty bitties had an extra set of “feelers” and I wondered if they had been parasitized. Glad to know it’s perfectly normal…for a different species. I try to always have something in bloom – lots of lantana, milkweed, and pentas – to invite in all of the nectar-ers an pollinators.

    • I have tons of Queens in my yard here in Bedford, TX. They’re also plentiful in the Hill Country. Plant Greg’s Blue Mist flowers …. they’ll swarm to it in the late summer.

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