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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Let the Royal Butterfly Parade Begin: First Come the Queens, with Monarchs to Follow

We start seeing Queens in August, and this year is no different.  Queens, Danaus gillippus, share the multiple charms of Monarchs, Danaus plexippus.  Both flaunt large size, flashy, striped caterpillars and chrysalises that resemble a jade crystal flecked with gold.

Queens are back in town

Queens are back in town. Here, on Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa.

If you’re lucky enough to have flowers blooming these brutal summer days, you’re likely seeing the burnt orange creatures.  Like Monarchs, Queens lay their eggs only on milkweed, but they nectar indiscriminately.   We had a few pass through our urban front yard garden this week, nectaring on lantana, Tropical milkweed and their favorite, Gregg’s purple mist flower.

Male Queens LOVE purple mistflower

Male Queens LOVE purple mistflower.

If you want Queens in your garden, we recommend planting mistflower. The bloom of the mistflower contains a special alkaloid that male Queens ingest, sequester, and later release as an aphrodisiac to attract females.

Distinguishing Monarchs from Queens can challenge butterfly observers. They appear identical on first glance, but look closely and you’ll see that Queens are a solid dark orange,  with wings folded.  Monarchs have much more variation in their coloring.   With wings open, the difference is more striking.  Queens

Queen butterfly, wings open

Queen butterfly wings open.  This one’s a male.

display none of the “stained glass” veins of Monarchs (see the banner photo at the top of this web page).  Queens’ open wings boast a solid orange-brown, with only white specks on the outer edges and a black outline.

In the caterpillar stage, Queens flaunt similar Monarch-like yellow and black stripes, but they also sport three sets of filaments, the amusing antennae-like protuberances that seem to feel the world around them in expressive contortions.  Monarchs display only two. Queens also wear a red accent where those filaments connect to the caterpillar, presumably a warning sign to predators.

Queen caterpillar with three filaments

Queen caterpillar with three filaments. Monarchs only have two.

As a chrysalis, Monarchs and Queens could be twins, except that Queens are slightly smaller.  Both attach themselves vertically from a a horizontal surface with a silk button after forming a “J” shape, then spin a shiny green chrysalis flecked with gold dots.  While

Queen and Monarch chrysalises

Queen and Monarch chrysalises. Monarch in the middle.

some butterfly species opt for disguises verging on the disgusting in the chrysalis stage–as bird droppings (Red-spotted Purples) and dried crinkled leaves (Gulf Fritillaries)–Queens and Monarchs win the chrysalis beauty pageant.  Their fantastic jade coloring and intriguing gold flecks provoke some folks to wear them as jewelry.  (Not something I recommend.)

For more tips on how to tell the difference between Queens and Monarchs, see these blogposts from the Texas Butterfly Ranch archives:

Queen Butterfly or Monarch Butterfly? Sometimes it’s Hard to Tell the Difference
How to tell the Difference between Future Monarch Butterflies and Future Queen Butterflies, Part II
Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.  You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.
 

UPDATE: Winter Monarch Butterflies are Reproducing at the Museum Reach Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Walk

Graduate student Kelly Nail was pleasantly surprised at the bounty of butterfly life unfolding at the Museum Reach milkweed patch on the San Antonio River Walk just this week.  The patch of milkweed, a Monarch butterfly host plant, was planted two years ago as part of the City’s redevelopment of the former drainage ditch and lies just a five-minute walk south of the Pearl development on lower Broadway.

Kelly Nail, Graduate Student, Univeristy of Minnesota

Kelly Nail, Graduate Student, Univeristy of Minnesota

Nail majored in mathematics and biology at St. Olaf College.  After teaching high school biology in rural Mississippi, she returned to school to study Monarch butterflies.  Her dissertation, overseen by renown Monarch butterfly scientist Dr. Karen Oberhauser at the University of Minnesota, will explore the effect of climate change on Monarch butterflies.  Nail flew to Houston this week to talk to Monarch citizen scientists about “winter Monarchs,” then made the three-hour drive to San Antonio to see how Alamo City butterflies are faring.

The Museum Reach milkweed patch did not disappoint.

We observed several Monarchs flying, more than a dozen Monarch caterpillars and one Queen caterpillar in various stages of development, dozens of chrysalises–spent, interupted, and in process–and one egg.  We also saw instances of the brilliant-but-creepy tachinid fly.  This parasitoid lays eggs on Monarch caterpillars, which kills them when the flies feed on their living bodies and eventually hatching just before the Monarchs pupate, leaving a caterpillar corpse in their wake.  Scientists suspect that Monarchs born later in the season and further south are more likely to encounter such a fate.

Nail was delighted to find such a jackpot of Monarch data. “I was impressed to see all stages of the life cycle in one single place,” said Nail.  “And right along the River Walk in the middle of San Antonio.  It’s pretty amazing.”

One of the questions she hopes to answer:  Are “winter Monarchs” reproductive?  Judging from this field trip–no doubt about it.

Butterfly fans and those of us who tag Monarch butterflies in the fall have always been told that late season Monarchs do not reproduce and are behaviorally and biologically different from spring and summer Monarchs.  Supposedly, late season Monarchs remain sexually inactive, saving their energy for the great migration to Mexico.  There, they wait out the winter and emerge from their diapause in the spring to partake in an orgy of butterfly mating in the mountains of Michoacan, often laying their first eggs on Texas milkweeds in March or April.

Butterfly fans know that local populations of Monarch butterflies can establish themselves when host and nectar plants are available and the weather cooperates.  We see it in Houston, Florida, and now–San Antonio.

Based on personal observation and discussions with professional butterfly breeders, it appears that Monarchs are just like us:  opportunists.  With ripe conditions and mates available, they’ll pounce on the chance to reproduce.

Our local Monarchs are likely to continue their procreative antics as long as  temperatures remain above freezing and milkweed and nectar plants provide host and sustenance.  San Antonio’s Museum Reach milkweed patch,  semi-protected from the elements with supplementary grey water and temperatures more moderate than street level, is destined to become a favored nectar and host plant hangout where Monarch butterflies gather to find partners.   That’s good news for those of us who hope to enjoy butterflies year-round.

We look forward to Nail’s research and to more visits to the milkweed patch.

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A Year in the Life of A Butterfly Garden: From Turf to a Butterfly Host and Nectar Garden, with Edible Landscape In Between

OK, no excuses people.  Time to get outside and get the butterfly garden going.  It’s not hard.  Doesn’t take all that much time.  And every day it inspires.  For proof, check out the slideshow below.

Turf to bed conversion: What are you waiting for?

Turf to bed conversion: why wait?

The photos below reflect 12 months in the life of a butterfly garden.  On November 17, 2010, I converted the Bermuda grass infested front yard of  my Austin apartment into a productive, fun and fascinating butterfly garden and edible landscape.  A year later, I’m leaving it behind and moving back to San Antonio to begin another yard transformation.

For help getting started, check out Part I and Part II of our Turf to Bed Conversion Series.  All the drought-damaged lawns around Austin and San Antonio beg to be converted from turf to beds.

Fair warning: a butterfly garden has the occasional dose of drama.  Consider the case of my Heirloom Tomato Thief.

In June, someone stole the perfectly robust, ripe heirloom tomatoes I had incorporated into my butterfly landscape.   I only had two tomato plants, so this was especially aggravating.  Each day I passed  these plants en route to work via the walkway from my apartment to the car, and was clocking their optimal harvest time.

Just as they reached their prime, a thief snatched the purply red tomatoes from their destiny as a Caprese salad.  Then someone chopped down my remaining six-foot tall sunflower a day later.  These garden violations drove me to borrow a digital game camera and bungee-cord it to a tree, where it snapped photos every five minutes for two days.  The backside of the alleged tomato robber was captured by “the Gardencam”–but she wasn’t.  Take a look.  Nothing conclusive, but I felt a bit better and the thievery stopped.

Butterfly gardens can make productive use of even a small plot.  In my limited space, I raised dozens of caterpillars and butterflies, grew handfuls of fruits and vegetables, and burned calories, worked on my tan, and made new friends as neighbors walked by commenting and asking questions.

What’s stopping you?  Your butterfly garden is waiting.  Make it happen.  Let us know if you have questions, and good luck!

Like what you’re reading?  Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the right navigation bar on this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @butterfly beat.

Butterfly Plant Walk, Monarch Talk and Caterpillar Crawl to Kick off San Antonio Botanical Garden’s Amazing Butterflies Exhibit

The San Antonio Botanical Garden celebrates the whole life cycle with the aptly named “Amazing Butterflies” exhibit, an interactive nature maze created by London’s Natural History Museum in collaboration with Minotaur Mazes.   The exhibit kicks off this weekend with special events and will run through January 8, 2012.

Amazing Butterflies aims to give visitors a chance to experience the challenges of being a caterpillar by wandering through a nature maze of larger-than-life leaves, grass and trees before morphing into a butterfly. Enroute, participants learn how caterpillars move, what they eat and how other creatures help them during their life cycle. Ultimately, participants have the chance to flap their wings and even do a wacky dance–maybe like the one in the video above?  (Apologies to old friend Kim Wilson and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.)

“The timing of Amazing Butterflies couldn’t be better, since fall is when our local butterflies are most active and people can watch their magical life cycle unfold in their own backyards,” said Bob Brackman, executive director of the San Antonio Botanical Garden.  “And what a bonus that the fall is when the Monarch butterflies are migrating through San Antonio.”

Of course, you don’t have to convince the Texas Butterfly Ranch that butterflies are amazing.  We know it.  That’s why I’ve signed up to talk about Milkweed, Monarchs, Migrations and More* at 11 AM on Saturday at the exhibit.  Hope to see you there.

Opening weekend activities run 10 am – 2 pm this Saturday and Sunday and include butterfly workshops for children and adults, children’s arts and craft activities, live butterfly tent, and more. The Austin Bike Zoo will make an appearance with their much lauded amazing butterfly bicycles, offering rides and fun.

Saturday
10:00 am Butterflies & Plants Walk
Patty Leslie Pasztor, Naturalist & Horticulturist
Wisteria Arbor
11:00 am Milkweed, Monarchs, Migration & More
Monika Maeckle, Texas Butterfly Ranch
Auld House
11:00 am  Storytime: Emily’s Butterfly Bouquet
Children’s author Kathy Luders. Book signing until 1 PM
Auld House Patio
1:00 pm Build it and They Will Come
Norman Winters, Executive Director, NABA National Butterfly Center
Auld House
 
Sunday
10:00 am Butterfly Gardening
Diane Lewis, Horticulturist
Auld House
11:00 am  Storytime: Emily’s Butterfly Bouquet
Children’s author Kathy Luders. Book signing until 1 PM
Auld House Patio
1:00 pm Build it and They Will Come
Norman Winters, Executive Director, NABA National Butterfly Center
Auld House
 

*If the Monarchs are out, we’ll do a demonstration on how to tag them.  Join us!

The San Antonio Botanical Garden is located at  555 Funston Avenue in San Antonio, TX  78209.  Amazing Butterflies exhibit continues through January 8, 2012.  Access to the exhibit is free with paid admission to the San Antonio Botanical Garden–$8 for adults; $6 for students, seniors, and military; and $5 for children age 3-13. Botanical Society members enjoy free admission.

 


 

Queen and Monarch Butterflies Share Beauty, Charm and Gold Dotted Chrysalises: How to Tell the Difference

Monarch butterflies get all the press as our most beloved species while the Queen, a close cousin, goes largely ignored.   Life’s not fair, even for butterfly beauties.

Upon close inspection, you’ll find that Queens share the charms of their closely related Monarch sisters, including large size, bright-striped caterpillars and chrysalises that resemble a gold-dotted jade crystal.

If you have flowers blooming now, you’re likely seeing Queens, Danaus gillippus.  Like Monarchs, Queens host only on milkweed, but they nectar indiscriminately.   During this historic Texas drought, they’re clinging to river bottoms, seeking the goldenrod and swamp milkweed that blooms in late summer.  In our gardens, they gravitate to lantanas, pentas, milkweed and purple mistflower.

Queens on Purple Mistflower                                                   Queen butterflies, wings folded, on Purple Mistflower

Queens generally precede the Fall Monarch parade.  While they don’t migrate like Monarchs, they are seasonal, showing up in the Spring and Fall.

Telling the difference between the two can challenge butterfly observers. On first glance, Queens and Monarchs seem identical, but look closely and you’ll see that Queens are solidly burnt orange, almost brown, with wings folded.  Monarchs have much more variation in their coloring.   With wings open, the difference is more striking.  Queens

Queen butterfly, wings openQueen Butterfly, wings open.  Oh, and it’s a male.

display none of the “stained glass” veins of Monarchs (see the banner photo at the top of this web page).  Queens’ open wings boast a solid orange-brown, with only white specks on the outer edges and a black outline.

In the caterpillar stage, Queens flaunt similar Monarch-like yellow and black stripes, but they also sport three sets of filaments, the amusing antennae-like protuberances that seem to feel the world around them in expressive contortions.  Monarchs display only two. Queens also wear a red accent where those filaments connect to the caterpillar, presumably a warning sign to predators:  Stop, don’t eat me!

Queen caterpillar on milkweedQueen Caterpillar on milkweed

As a chrysalis, Monarchs and Queens could be twins, except that Queens are slightly smaller.  Both attach themselves vertically from a a horizontal surface with a silk button after forming a “J” shape, then spin a shiny green chrysalis flecked with gold dots.  While some butterfly species opt for disguises verging on the disgusting in the chrysalis stage–as bird droppings (Red-spotted Purples) and dried crinkled leaves (Gulf Fritillaries)–Queens and Monarchs win the chrysalis beauty pageant.  Their fantastic jade coloring and intriguing gold flecks provoke some folks to wear them as jewelry. (Not something I recommend.)

Queen and Monarch ChrysalisesQueen Chrysalises are usually smaller than Monarch Chrysalises

For more tips on how to tell the difference between Queens and Monarchs, see these blogposts from the Texas Butterfly Ranch archives:

Queen Butterfly or Monarch Butterfly? Sometimes it’s Hard to Tell the Difference

How to tell the Difference between Future Monarch Butterflies and Future Queen Butterflies, Part II

How to Raise Butterflies-to-Be: Rearing Caterpillars the Topic at Monday’s Austin Butterfly Forum

Ever wonder about the best way to raise caterpillars at home for fun?  I do, and experiment all the time–with mixed success.  That’s why I’m so looking forward to the Austin Butterfly Forum’s “How to Raise Caterpillars” meeting on Monday, April 25 at the Zilker Botanical Center.   The show starts at 7 PM and it’s free.

Eastern Swallowtail Caterpillar

Tips for raising Eastern Swallowtails and other caterpillars will be covered at the Austin Butterfly Forum on Monday

San Antonio butterfly lovers, I encourage you to make the drive Monday night.  The chance to learn such esoteric skills directly from passionate butterfly enthusiasts doesn’t happen that often–and it’s free.  Also, it’s a great chance to connect with your community of fellow butterfly enthusiasts.

According to organizer Dan Hardy, several Forum members,  all of whom have years of experience raising caterpillars and hatching butterflies, will lead the session.  You’ll learn:

  • Which butterfly species are best for novices
  • How to trouble shoot illness and disease
  • What kind of gear you need to get started
  • Where to find eggs and caterpillars and how to transport them, plus
  • How to watch for females laying eggs.

“We’ll talk about all the ways caterpillars get into trouble, ” says Dan, a pathologist by training, matter-of-factly. “Problem is, there’s rarely a cure!”

The Austin Butterfly Forum was founded in 1993 and is a nonprofit organization devoted to education and enlightenment about butterflies, with occasional forays into moths.  The membership includes about 50 hobbyists and butterfly gardeners.   Dan says several bonified entomologists participate as well, as do moth lovers.

Sounds like my kind of crowd. Hope to see you there.

PS.  The Austin Butterfly Forum will also hold an all-day workshop on Saturday, May 7 at the same location.  The session runs 10 AM – 4 PM, costs $35, and will offer the basics of butterflying, identification, gardening, and caterpillar rearing tips, as well as a guided walk around Zilker garden.  The fee gets you lunch and set of plants to get started.  For more information, contact Jeff Taylor, 512.825.8368.

Getting your Filament on Queens vs. Monarch Butterflies, Part III

The debate on distinguishing Queen butterfly caterpillars from Monarch butterfly caterpillars continues in a slew of comments on the Monarch Watch Facebook page.   I now stand double corrected:   the antennae-like protuberances I mentioned in earlier posts as tentacles are in fact, not.  Technically, they are known as filaments and are sensitive to sonic vibrations and touch.

Thanks to Jim Lovett at Monarch Watch for clarifying the matter.

What’s not clear is the purpose the filaments serve. Even scientists don’t fully understand the biological point of these amusing and kind of goofy extensions 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 more on filaments and what we do and don’t know about them, check this link on the Monarch Watch page.

In the meantime, above is another photo of a Queen I took this week. The red coloration at the base of each filament is dramatic and surely must be a warning sign to predators:  STOP! Don’t eat me!

How to tell the Difference between Future Monarch Butterflies and Future Queen Butterflies, Part II

Queen caterpillar has three sets of "antennae."

As mentioned in a previous post, one way to tell future Queen butterflies from Monarch butterflies-to-be is to observe them in the caterpillar stage.  Queens have three sets of antennae-like protuberances, while Monarchs have two.

I say “antennae-like” because my friend and butterfly consultant, Dr. Daniel Najera, a PhD in Entomoloy from the University of Kansas, Lawrence,  informs me that the word “antennae” is not appropriate for describing all of                                                                                                     these interesting extensions.

Monarch caterpillar has two sets of "antennae"

Apparently antennae have special sensing powers while tentacles are just for show.  Part of the reason for this is to throw off predators (and I’d like to think to amuse us observers).  So technically (or should I say tentacle-ly?) only the set of protuberances on the head of the caterpillar are antennae, while the others are tentacles.

Got all that?

And now, for the photos.  Queen–above. One set of antennae + two sets of tentacles = three antennae-like protuberances.

Monarch–below.  One  set of antennae + one set of tentacles = two antennae-like protuberances.

Glad we got all that straightened out.