Life of a Monarch

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator and Sheila Vincent, Public Program Coordinator
A Monarch caterpillar munches on a milkweed leaf at Ashland. Photo by Hank Davis.

Right now, the last generation of Monarch butterflies in our region are completing their life cycles.  The Monarchs we are seeing now are likely three to four generations removed from their ancestors that arrived here in early summer.

Last week, photographer and DNS board member Hank Davis captured an amazing series of images of Monarchs in all different stages, all in one tiny island in the middle of the Ashland parking lot!

A Monarch caterpillar hangs upside down in a typical "J" shape prior to forming its chrysalis.

In late summer, the adult Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed plants as usual.  The tiny egg (smaller than a pin head) hatches after 5-7 days, and the caterpillar that emerges will feast on milkweed for 10-14 days.  When the caterpillar is mature enough (the final instar or stage), it will seek out a sturdy stem to hang from and curl up in  a “J.”

A freshly-formed Monarch chrysalis hangs from a goldenrod stem. Photo by Hank Davis.

The magnificent chrysalis is actually the last skin that the caterpillar will wear, and where it will spend the next 10-15 days transforming into a butterfly.

A Monarch chrysalis "ready to hatch" with the dark orange wings of the adult butterfly visible inside. Photo by Hank Davis.

The hardened skin of the chrysalis is an opaque pale green color until it is time for the adult Monarch to emerge.  Then the skin becomes becomes transparent and the butterfly breaks free.

After the adult Monarch emerges, all that is left is the paper-thin chrysalid case. Photo by Hank Davis.

The abandoned chrysalis looks and feels like tissue paper, and retains the wondrous gold and black speckling ringing the top.

This is how the next generation of Monarchs starts: a mated pair of Monarchs. Image by Derek Stoner.

The adult Monarch will hang for hours drying its wings, and finally set forth on its first flight to find nectar sources.  The twist, however, is that this generation is “programmed” to migrate south all the way to ancestral wintering grounds in the mountains of central Mexico.  How do they accomplish this amazing feat?  We don’t know the full answer!

If you’d like to learn more about Monarchs and explore their world, we invite you take part in the Monarch Migration Celebration this Saturday, September 18, from 10:00am to Noon, at the DuPont Environmental Education Center in Wilmington.  

On Saturday, September 25, from 2:00 to 4:00pm, families can take part in the Monarch Migration program at Burrows Run Preserve, where we will capture, tag, and release Monarchs on their way to Mexico.

For more information about these programs, please visit

2 thoughts on “Life of a Monarch”

  1. Great information!! I’ve been watching this amazing transformation this year my self. Actually yesterday a chrysalis I found did it’s amazing act and turned into that wonderful butterfly. Only thing is I was at work and the wife saw it lovely self flapping it’s wings in the jar we had it in. She let it free a little while latter. I had seen it a few hours earlier and figured it wouldn’t be long but had to go, oh well maybe next time;) Thanks for sharing this wonderful information, Ben Tebbens of Lincoln, DE.

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