Life Stages: Monarch Butterfly

The monarch butterfly is one of the most readily recognized and iconic butterfly species on the planet.  While for some insects we might not even know what the immature stage looks like, the monarch has been heavily researched for many years and we know more about how it develops from egg to adult better than most insect species. We have a lot of monarchs at the museum field station where I work, so today I’m going to share the life cycle of the monarch butterfly, every stage for this one.

All insects start off as eggs, so let’s take a look at a monarch egg:

monarch egg

The monarch eggshell (called the chorion in insects) is pale and heavily textured with intricate patterns.  However, unless you get a really good, up close look at one, you’re mostly going to see a pale off-white football shaped object stuck to the underside of a milkweed leaf.  They’re small, but still readily visible if you look closely.  The egg eventually hatches, and the first caterpillar stage emerges:

monarch first instar

Immature insect life stages are called instars and an insect will move from, say, first to second instar by molting its exoskeleton so it can grow.  The first instar larva of the monarch is quite small and looks different from the later stages in its development. They have entirely black heads instead of the striped heads they develop later and they’re largely translucent.  Eventually, they eat enough that they outgrow their first instar exoskeleton and molt into a second instar:

monarch second instar

Seconds start to exhibit the stripey heads and the coloration that people associate with monarch caterpillars.  They’re less translucent than the firsts and start to show the white lines that make up a large part of the pattern on the later instars. The tentacles that come off the front and back of the caterpillars begin to show. Second instar monarch caterpillars have longer tentacles in front and only tiny stubs in the back. Both sets of tentacles are much more pronounced in the third instar:

monarch third instar

Third instars have obvious back tentacles, but they’re still fairly short. Both sets of tentacles are much longer in the fourths:

monarch fourth instar

The tentacles on the front of the fourths are quite long, and about twice as long as those in the back.

The fifth instar is the last stage:

monarch fifth instar

The tentacles are very long on the fifths!  The caterpillars are also quite large, about the size of your pinky finger.  They also have the color pattern most people most associate with monarch caterpillars, black, yellow, and white stripes and a striped head.

Once the fifth instar caterpillar has eaten enough and grown to a certain size, it can pupate.  The caterpillars typically leave the milkweeds they feed on as larvae and find another location to pupate:

monarch pupa

Monarch pupae are gorgeous!  Their pale green coloration helps them blend in with vegetation.  They also have a line of metallic gold spots along one side.  As they get closer to emerging as adults, the color changes.  The exoskeleton of the pupa becomes transparent and you can see the black and orange of the monarch and the outline of different body parts tucked inside.

The pupal stage of insects is really pretty amazing, transforming an insect from a worm-like structure to something with wings (usually).  They’re essentially completely rearranging their bodies!  Eventually, however, they finish their adult development, crack open the exoskeleton of the pupa, and pull their adult body out.  They then pump hemolymph (insect blood!) into their legs, mouthparts, and wings to expand them to their fully extended form.  Then the exoskeleton “cures” and hardens.  Once that happens, the insect is as big as it will ever get and has all its body parts in the position they will remain the rest of its life:

monarch adult

The only change an adult undergoes is the loss of body parts.  With butterflies, you can often get a good idea of whether it is young or old by looking at the wings.  Complete wings with brightly colored scales tend to indicate younger adults.  Tattered or missing wings and dull spots where scales have rubbed off generally mean you’re looking at a butterfly nearer the end of its life.

Monarch males have scent glands that help them find their mates. Once they find a female, they will mate:

mating monarchs

The female then lays an egg on the underside of a milkweed leaf.  She will leave it behind to lay more, often on other milkweed plants.  The caterpillars that hatch have to fend for themselves and ultimately only a small percentage will make it to the adult stage.

Monarchs have a very complicated yearly life cycle.  I am not going to go into much detail here, but they have multiple generations a year.  The monarchs that fly north from Mexico typically make it as far as Texas before they lay a bunch of eggs and die. The monarchs that hatch from these eggs spread further north in search of milkweeds and nectar, and then they too lay eggs and die.  This can happen one or two more times before a special generation is produced in late summer or early fall.  This generation lives close to 6 months instead of just a few weeks and they are the ones that will fly to Mexico, overwinter there, and then fly back to the US in the spring.

So there you have it: the complete monarch life cycle – and the first Life Stages post.  Hope you enjoyed this one, and I’ll post another species soon!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

New Feature: Life Stages

I’ve taken many thousands of photos of a variety of insects in North Carolina since I moved here and I’d like to do a little something more with them.  I am therefore adding a new periodic feature that will make good use of my hoards of photos: Life Stages! These features will briefly cover multiple stages in the life cycle of a species and share some information about it – what it eats, how it develops, etc.  These posts will help me learn about the species I come across in my daily life, but my hope is to pass along what I discover to you all so that you can get to know the multiple forms, colors, and ages of insects a little better too.

I hope you’ll enjoy Life Stages and learn alongside me!  The first post goes up soon, featuring the iconic life cycle of the monarch butterfly.


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

Stereotypical Ladybug Behavior (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

You always hear about ladybugs eating aphids, but I’ll be honest: I’ve watched thousands of ladybugs, and I’ve never actually seen one eat an aphid.  Until, that is, I got this photo of a seven-spotted ladybug eating an oleander aphid on common milkweed recently:

Ladybug eating an aphid

Woo!  A ladybug doing what everyone always talks about them doing!  It was an exciting moment for me for some reason.  :)


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

Tagging Monarchs for Science

monarchs-caughtFor those of you who don’t know, I work at a natural history museum as the head of citizen science.  I oversee the collection and entry of data for about 40 citizen science projects at my museum’s field station, do a ton of education based on citizen science projects, create my own citizen science research projects, and help other people create and/or promote their projects as part of the overall program at the museum.  It’s a ton of fun and I absolutely love what I do, but I especially like it when my current life as a natural history museum citizen science person and my past life as an entomology researcher combine.  It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that one of my favorite projects to participate in every year is Monarch Watch.

Monarchs have been a focus of citizen science projects for a long time.  The first major monarch project was called the Insect Migration Association and was started by a pair of Canadian entomologists named Fred and Norah Urquhart.  For 40 years, they tracked movements by gluing small paper tags to monarch wings and enlisted the help of enthusiasts throughout Canada and the US to track where they went by reporting the tag numbers back to the Urquharts.  Thanks to their efforts, in 1975 another couple who participated in the project, Ken and Catalina Brugger, tracked the monarchs through Mexico and eventually found their overwintering grounds in the oyamel fir forests in central Mexico.  It’s a pretty miraculous story, but also one that could never have happened if the Urquharts didn’t enlist the help of many other people.  It’s a great example of a citizen science project, and one that worked amazingly well in spite of getting its start long before the convenience of the internet made this sort of research so much easier.

tagged-monarch-before-releaseThe Urquhart’s project eventually became Monarch Watch under Chip Taylor at the University of Kansas and the process is essentially the same.  Now we use stickers instead of paper tags that need to be glued on, but you still have to catch the monarch, handle it gently while you affix the tag, record the data (date, location, sex of the butterfly, wild or reared, and the tag number), and release it. Monarch Watch does a survey in Mexico each year to look for tags and eventually reports back to the public about where monarchs were tagged and which ones made it all the way to Mexico.

I really enjoy participating in Monarch Watch.  I’ve gotten my process down well so that I can catch, tag, photograph, and release a monarch in under 30 seconds. As much as I like tagging monarchs myself (I spend many hours every year walking up and down the dirt road at the field station catching and tagging monarchs), I think I might actually enjoy teaching other people how to do it even more.

taqged monarch feeding on nectarI’ve been catching butterflies a long time.  I started my insect collection when I was about 11 years old and I’ve handled hundreds, maybe thousands, of butterflies.  While I adore monarchs and think that tagging them is a wholly worthwhile experience, I don’t think I get the same sort of rush from it that the people I teach do.

Most of the people who come to the monarch tagging programs I host have never held a butterfly before.  Many are terrified of hurting them and some people refuse to hold them.  They’ll watch me tag the monarchs they catch instead.  Most of these people have been told that touching a butterfly will rub scales off the wings (true) or kill it (unlikely if you’re handling them carefully) and worry about hurting them. They also worry they’ll get the tag in the wrong place or break a wing vein.  I don’t pressure people to tag the monarchs themselves if they show any hesitation, but I usually ask to release the butterfly by setting it on their arm.  The way their faces light up when they see a tagged monarch flap its wings and take off on its way to Mexico is amazing.  It is usually a look of pure, unadulterated joy, a rare moment of pure peace and tranquility.

Other people want to dive right in and do the tagging themselves.  They will bring the first monarch they catch over to me and have me show them how to get the butterfly out of the net.  They’ll usually put the first tag on themselves and will take the butterfly from me when I pass it to them.  These people release them from their hands, then rush off to catch another one so they can do the whole process again themselves. They might be a little more focused on the hunt and a little less worried about hurting the butterflies than other people, but the moment the monarch leaps into the air from their hands, they get the same beatific look on their faces as everyone else.  It’s simply amazing to watch.

There’s something so awe-inspiring about handling a small, fragile animal knowing that it might fly all the way to Mexico, overwinter high in the mountains, and then fly all the way back to the US.  I suspect that when people release a tagged monarch, they form a sort of connection to the migration.  Perhaps they think that part of them will travel with the butterfly as it completes its amazing journey.  That this monarch you hold in your hands might be the same butterfly that researchers record when they survey the monarchs in Mexico – well, that’s a truly awesome thought.  I think this idea is the source of that joyous smile as people watch the butterflies fly away, but I never ask.  I’d hate to ruin the moment for them by asking them to dissect their feelings immediately after having what is clearly an amazing experience.

tagged monarchI’ll keep tagging monarchs and I’ll keep teaching other people to do it because I love it.  Since I moved to North Carolina in 2012, I have generally tagged between 6 and 15 monarchs each year.  This year has been a magnificent monarch year at the field station: I’ve tagged 26 so far.  That’s 26 butterflies out of millions that I held in my own two hands that will attempt to fly to another country.  Only time will tell how many of them make it, but I wish them the best of luck on their journey.



Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

National Moth Week Favorites

My last post about National Moth Week!  Can you tell I really love this event?  It gets me outside looking at bugs both at work and at home each year, so it’s a ton of fun. However, this year’s fun was greater than usual thanks to a couple of things, a great insect find and a photo I’m really pleased with.

First, let’s discuss this awesome, amazing critter:

Pleasing lacewing

Pleasing lacewing

I saw it and started yelling, “Ooh, ooh, ooh!” and jumped around happily.  If my neighbors didn’t already worry about me, that little episode probably convinced them I am nuts.  However, I quickly came to my senses and took a whole bunch of photos of it. I knew it was something unusual, something I definitely haven’t ever seen before. Once I got a ton of photos, I ran inside and started looking through my field guides.  It wasn’t in any of them, but that didn’t surprise me.  It was so weird! I wasn’t even really sure what order it belonged to, but I thought Neuroptera (the net-winged insects) was the most likely.  So, I started randomly clicking through all of the Neuroptera photos on BugGuide to see if I could find it.  Happily I did!

Family Dilaridae, the pleasing lacewings.  Nallachius americanus specifically.  There are two species in the US (one is only found in Arizona) and about 70 species worldwide.

According to BugGuide, this group of insects does come to lights at night, but it’s rarely seen or collected.  The larvae are apparently thought to feed on beetles under bark, but there’s no mention of what the adults feed on.  I kinda felt like I should catch it and add it to my collection since it may be the only one I ever see, but I eventually decided against it.  I don’t have a scientific reason to collect any more, so I just watched it for a while and it eventually flew away.  I’m happy with just having photos of it.

This find totally made my entire National Moth Week!  If the pleasing lacewing had been the only thing I saw the entire week I still would have walked away happy.  Love getting to see/learn about new things, especially things that are entirely new.

A few days later, however, I got my favorite photo of the week:

Rosy maple moth

Rosy maple moth

I love rosy maple moths!  They’re super common in my area, but they’re so fuzzy and gaudily colored that it’s hard not to adore them.  This one had something weird going on on one of its wings (you can see the black markings on the hind wing on the left side of the photo – that’s not normal), but it let me handle it.  That meant I could get a good shot of its face, which I thoroughly enjoy doing. I snapped away and it eventually wiggled around into the position in the photo above, letting me get a dead on shot of its face.  Look at all that fuzz!  All that pink!  Those amazing antennae! This immediately became my favorite photo of NMW.  I spent the last few days of the event attempting to get similar head shots of other moths, but none of them worked out quite as well (i.e., didn’t amuse me as much) as this one.

And with that, I am done posting about National Moth Week!  I have so many other things I want to write about still, so I am hoping I can keep this momentum going a little while longer.  I still have an entire year’s worth of Dragonfly Swarm Project info/data to post too!  Look for more posts soon!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

National Moth Week Bycatch

bycatch (n.): the accidental capture of non-target species.  This term originated in the marine fishing industry, but has expanded to include other non-target species captured in other forms of collecting or harvesting.

National Moth Week is, as you may have gathered from the name,  a celebration of moths that asks people to learn more about and observe moths during the last full week of July.  However, you never just get moths when you set up blacklights!  You get a ton of non-moth insects coming to the lights as well, and today I want to feature some of the great non-moth insects I found this year.  Let’s explore them by order and start with the…

Orthoptera (grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets)

I find lots of field crickets and katydids at my lights, but I find a lot of these as well:

Common scaly cricket

Common scaly cricket

That’s a common scaly cricket immature (on my siding that’s clearly in need of a good powerwash to remove the algae!).  These are supposed to live on bushes or under debris near water, so I can only presume that they are taking advantage of the low spot in my yard that’s almost always sopping wet.  I love the shape of these crickets, just a little different from the standard cricket body plan.  This one is pretty dark compared to most of the scaly crickets I see too – the ones in my yard tend to be white and just a little translucent.

Dermaptera (earwigs)

Earwigs creep a lot of people out, but they’re harmless:



Depending on the species, and I don’t know which one this is, earwigs can eat plants, decaying organic matter, or insect prey.  I didn’t see this one hunt at the lights as many other carnivorous insects and spiders do, so I suspect it might be a plant or humus eater rather than a predator.

Blattodea (cockroaches)



We all know and love (to hate) cockroaches!  I found loads of them near my lights this year.  I suspect they’re coming out of the storm sewer drain in front of my house.  This particular roach was looking down at me from the porch light by my front door, so I got a good look at its face for once.  Normally that’s tucked away below the plate-like front section of the thorax, the prothorax, where it’s hard to see.

Hemiptera (true bugs)

Most people don’t enjoy this species:

Brown marmorated stink bug

Brown marmorated stink bug

Brown marmorated stink bugs are invasive in the US and can invade homes in pretty large numbers.  As you might imagine, the scent of many stink bugs together in one place is none too pleasant!  These also feed on a variety of fruit and vegetable crops, so they’re not popular with farmers and gardeners either.  However, in spite of the problems they cause, I think they’re rather elegant looking bugs.  The coloration and pattern are subtle, but sort of pretty too.

This bug is a fun one:

Two lined spittle bug

Two lined spittle bug

That’s a two-lined spittle bug.  They get their name from the foamy secretions they excrete as they feed as immatures.  If you’ve ever seen something that looks like a wad of foamy spit hanging off a plant, you may be looking at spittle bug secretions!  They’re considered turfgrass pests, so people who care about their lawns often despise spittle bug nymphs.  Me, I’d rather have bugs than healthy grass, so I love having spittle bugs in my weedy lawn!

Coleoptera (beetles)

I get a lot of beetles at my lights, especially ground beetles in the family Carabidae, rove beetles in the family Staphylinidae, scarab beetles in the family Scarabaeidae, and click beetles in the family Elateridae.  I take loads of photos of the same species night after night, so it’s exciting to see something less common, like this gorgeous beetle:

Rustic borer

Rustic borer

That’s a rustic borer. It’s actually a common beetle at lights in North Carolina, but I rarely see them in my yard.  They a borer beetles, so their larvae grow inside of trees.  They’re not very picky – almost any hardwood tree will do for this species.

Hymenoptera (wasps, bee, and ants)

I am absolutely terrible at identifying wasps, but most of the ones I see at night look like the parasitic wasps in the Ichenumonidae and Braconidae families:



No idea what this one is, but I like the way it looks, thus I’m including it here.

Trichoptera (caddisflies)

Caddisflies start off life in water and emerge onto land as adults.  I have a large river that flows close to my house, so I suspect that’s the reason that I get so very many caddisflies at my lights.  I know this one is a longhorn caddisfly:

Longhorned cassisfly adult

Longhorned caddisfly

… but I’m not sure which family this one belongs to:

Caddisfly adult


I can ID aquatic caddisfly larvae easily enough, but once they’re adults they honestly all look about the same to me…  Someday I’ll at least learn my caddisfly adults to family!

And finally, we come to the flies!

Diptera (flies)

These also have aquatic larvae, though they don’t live in the kinds of aquatic habitats you normally think of:

Moth fly

Moth fly

Moths flies are called drain flies as larvae as they are often found living in the water trapped in the U bends of drains in locker rooms, hospitals, bathrooms, and other places where skin cells and other human waste gets trapped in little nasty puddles of water.  The larvae are actually rather interesting looking, but the adults are downright adorable!  They’re tiny, but oh so fluffy.  I just love them!  I suspect these might be coming from the storm drain as I tend to see a lot of them at lights at night outside my house.  I don’t care how gross they are – I am always happy to see a moth fly!

I am going to post one more blog related to National Moth week, one that features my favorite insect find of the year and my favorite photo.  Look for that post coming soon! (And it’s already written, so this time I really mean it’s coming soon!)


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

National Moth Week, As Seen From My Backyard

Well, this is far out of date now, but I’m going to go ahead and post it anyway! I’ve made it an annual tradition to blacklight in my backyard every night of National Moth Week. I set up a blacklight in my yard, point it toward the white siding of my house, turn it on at dusk, and then head out to my yard to see what comes to the lights a few times each night, photographing every species that I find. This year, it was very warm and humid and it rained one night, so I got a pretty great diversity! Some of the species are the very common species I find every time I blacklight in my yard, such as this elegant grass veneer:

Elegant grass veneer moth

Elegant grass veneer

My yard is mostly grass with a few non-native trees and shrubs, so it’s not surprising to find a species that depends on grass for its survival.  I also see a lot of these Suzuki’s promalactis moths:

Suzuki's promalactis moth

Suzuki’s promalactis

This is a species that’s non-native in the US, but we don’t know much about it still.  It’s a very pretty moth though, if you can get a close enough look at its very small body!

Other common moths included the common tan wave (these have to fly in from some other location as I have none of its many host plants in my yard):

Common tan wave moth

the clemens grass tubeworm (larvae feed on red clover, which is abundant in my “lawn”):

Clemens grass tubeworm moth

and the green cutworm (feeds on grasses, among other things, as caterpillars):

Green cutworm moth

Green cutworm

None of these are particularly showy moths, but they are readily abundant in my yard and among the most common species I see.  You’ll notice that most of the common species I see feed on grasses as caterpillars.  Given the amount of grass in my yard, it probably explains why I see so very many of these species at my lights.

This year, I saw some things that I’ve added to my backyard moth list during past National Moth Weeks, but may have only seen once or twice altogether.  I love skiff moths:

Skiff moth

Skiff moth

They feed on a variety of trees and shrubs, though I’ve never seen one of their awesome, tank-like green caterpillars in my yard.  They could be coming in from somewhere else. This is the smoky tetanolita:

Smoky tetanolita moth

Smoky tetanolita

Their caterpillars feed on dead leaves.  And this is the variable reddish pyrausta:

Variable reddish pyrausta moth

Variable reddish pyrausta

I can’t find much information about this species, but it’s awfully pretty.  Some close relatives of this group of moths make up the majority of the aquatic moth species, so I wonder if these might not be taking advantage of plants in the soggy part of my yard.

I got to add several new moths to my list this year! I loved this crowned slug moth:

Crowned slug moth

Crowned slug moth

No idea why it was posed that way, but it did fly away at some point and was not in fact dead.  This species could be feeding on my maple trees and it has an awesome caterpillar that is covered in stinging hairs.  It’s fun that a nasty caterpillar turns into such a plush, cuddly moth!

Given that I live in North Carolina and there are still a relatively large number of tobacco farmers around, it’s not surprising to see a tobacco budworm moth:

Tobacco budworm moth

Tobacco budworm moth

No idea where this might have come from, but perhaps a neighbor’s garden where it can feed on a variety of crop plants (including tomatoes and squash) and ornamental flowers.  I loved the elegant, subtle patterns on its wings!

This species I haven’t IDed beyond wainscot moth in the genus Leucania:

Leucania sp. moth

Leucania sp.

There are 33 species in this genus in the US and almost all of them can be found in the eastern part of the US.   I was able to ID another similarly drab moth as a white speck moth:

White speck moth

White speck

These are also called armyworms, apparently based on their habit of eating plants down to the ground and then marching to another area to continue feeding.  They’re generalist feeders and can be pesty.

This was my favorite of the new additions this year:

Brown shaded gray moth

Brown shaded gray

It was bigger than it looks in the photo, and I loved the striped pattern on the wings.  No bright colors or anything, but still very pretty.

My best find, however, didn’t sit still long enough for me to get more than a glance at it before it flew off.  It was a five spotted hawkmoth, a giant, powerful beast of a moth.  I was taking a photo of something else when it slammed into the back of my head.  Scared me badly enough that I shrieked loudly (so embarrassing!) and then it fluttered around outside of the light for a good five minutes before it landed just long enough for me to see what it was.  I lifted my camera, but it flew right into my face, smacked my cheek with its wings a few times, and then flew away.  Wow, such a gorgeous moth! And so scary when you don’t expect to have something the size of a small bat silently fly into your head at a high speed in the middle of the night!

Of course, you don’t see only moths when you blacklight!  My next post will feature the “bycatch” from National Moth Week, the non-target insects that also came to my lights.  I got a bunch of the same old things I always get, but this year I also got a few exciting new things that I can’t wait to share!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.