Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Monarch Butterfly, a Case of Mistaken Identity

Male monarch butterfly
© Beatriz Moisset

 A few days ago, I arrived at my favorite native flower garden at Churchville Nature Center with my camera, looking for pollinators as usual. A mother, also with a camera hanging from her neck, was visiting the garden with two children.

Black swallowtail caterpillar on fennel
© Beatriz Moisset

Milkweed tussock moth caterpillar
on common milkweed
© Beatriz Moisset

She pointed at a fuzzy, hairy, colorful caterpillar eating milkweed leaves. "Look at the monarch butterfly caterpillar," she said to the kids.

I couldn't stay quiet, "It is a tussock moth caterpillar," I explained.

"Oh, yes," she saved face by adding, "it will turn into a large moth, the tussock moth."

Later, she moved to a fennel plant and announced: "this is the plant that monarch caterpillars need for food."

The real thing, monarch caterpillar on common milkweed
© Beatriz Moisset
Should I have corrected her again? I would have to explain that monarchs feed only on milkweeds. Black swallowtails are the ones that need fennel. I simply walked away shaking my head.

Monarchs, monarchs, monarchs! I thought. How often people mistake anything else for monarchs?

Tiger swallowtail
© Beatriz Moisset

Just a few days earlier, a gentleman photographer at Pennypack Nature Center was busy snapping shots of something I couldn't see at the time. "There is a monarch right there." He pointed at a gorgeous large black-and-yellow striped butterfly with trailing tails on its wings, nothing like the orange and black monarch.

"It is a tiger swallowtail," I told him.

Fritillary butterfly on butterfly weed
© Beatriz Moisset
Then, I remembered all the times when people look at my framed photo of a fritillary butterfly and ask me if, or even tell me that, it is a monarch. All this sounds like Elvis Presley's sightings.

From pandas to dolphins to monarch butterflies: some animals become iconic. The monarch butterfly is, perhaps, the most iconic of all insects. Entomologist Marlin Rice (Iowa State University) referred to the monarch as the "Bambi of the insect world." This spectacular butterfly acquired its fame, in part due to a movement devoted to preserve the monarch and its remarkable migration. The movement is sponsored by websites such as Monarch Watch, the Monarch MonitoringProject, and a few others listed in the Walter H. Sakai's website. They are all worthy causes that engage the public; these projects can use the income generated by all the publicity.

I applaud the efforts of these organizations. At the same time, I wonder: A poster child is valuable if it raises awareness of a broader issue. The ecological importance of the monarch butterfly is that it is one of many species at risk because of human-caused habitat degradation. Other species may not be as appealing as the poster child, but they deserve our attention, too.

Red admiral, sometimes mistaken for a monarch
© Beatriz Moisset

The real thing, monarch butterfly on common milkweed
© Beatriz Moisset
Milkweeds, Monarchs and More: The Milkweed Community 
List of articles
Beginners Guide to Pollinators and Other Flower Visitor

© Beatriz Moisset. 2013


  1. The differences are obvious to people who aren't surrounded by close-cut turf and green bushes that are shorn within an inch of their lives.

    As long as people are required to keep their yards cut, instead of living with the natural progressions, the problem of species ignorance will only get worse as the butterfly populations decline.

    I've known people that tried to grow milkweeds for the monarchs, while continuing to keep their meadows mowed and the the tree bases and fences vegetation-free with liberal applications of herbicides... and... any orange butterfly was a monarch.

  2. Just like there is only one bee, from which we get honey and beeswax.

    It's frustrating, but it's also a teachable moment.

  3. I'm glad you spread a little knowledge along the way, Beatriz. You never know what spark you may have lit in someone to go and learn more.

  4. Another article on a similar theme by Eric Eaton, "The Monarch Dethroned,"

  5. I read Eric's article which got me to thinking and I do hear you..... Thanks for educating me on pollinators... Michelle