By Ron Divelbiss
There is a caterpillar that looks like a little candy stick. Its white, yellow, and black rings might look like peppermint, lemon, and licorice to you. but to birds and other enemies, they are colors of danger, telling sparrows, chickadees, and blue jays to keep away.
This caterpillar is about the size of your middle finger, and it can squeeze shorter or longer like an accordian.
The monarch caterpillar eats mostly milkweed leaves. That bitter-tasting weed makes it taste terrible, because milkweed contains natural poisons. They don't harm the caterpillar, but they make its enemies sick. So hardly anything eats this caterpillar.
You can see the monarch butterfly caterpillar from April through September. However, there are greater numbers in August and September. It lives in open areas like meadows and fields, and on roadsides, wherever milkweeds grow.
Its egg is smaller than a pinhead. Yet, in the first two weeks of its life, the monarch caterpillar grows to 2,700 times its birth-size. An 8-pound human baby growing at the same rate would weigh over 10 tons at two weeks old!
When it reaches full size, it becomes restless and starts looking for a place to pupate. It first spins a button of silk to hang from. Then it sheds its skin, and becomes a smooth green chrysalis with gold spots. It spends 9 to 12 days reorganizing its ugly caterpillar body into a spectacular butterfly. When it emerges from the chrysalis, it pumps up its wings with body fluid. The wings harden in a few minutes and the butterfly flies away.
It is easy to tell which monarchs are male. They have mating scent sacs on their back wings. Each has a tiny bulge on the black line at the center of the wing. These attract female monarchs.
You will find monarchs along country roads sipping nectar from milkweeds, red clover, thistle, and goldenrod. They can also be seen flying through your yard sipping from garden flowers.
Monarchs are famous for migrating. Most monarchs fly to Mexico for the winter. Scientists have learned that they can fly as fast as 35 miles per hour. Some fly as much as 260 miles in one day. They fly up to 2,500 miles in six weeks.
Now that you know all about this interesting animal, try this with your kids or grandkids. Take a drive out in the country some time in August. Stop where there are milkweed plants. Look on the under sides of the leaves for a monarch caterpillar. Try to find the biggest possible. Be sure you can get a fresh supply of leaves each day to feed your caterpillar. Watch for yourself how fast it grows. Put a stick in your jar so it will have someplace to hang when it forms its pupa. Now watch it several times a day until it emerges. Feed it some sugar water and then enjoy watching it fly away.