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Monarch butterflies have captured the imagination of many people and it’s easy to see why. Monarchs are big and bold. Their bright colors warn predators that the butterflies are poisonous to many. They are excellent fliers, with one generation flying up to thousands of miles to locations where they will overwinter.

The life cycle of a monarch can be seen in a home, school or park garden that provides the elements for the butterfly’s habitat. Of course, good timing, patience and luck are important to catch this event. These pictures of a monarch’s life cycle were taken this spring at Hartsfield Elementary School (HES) in Tallahassee. Last fall, Florida Wildlife Federation partnered with Hartsfield to build a wildlife habitat on school grounds.

With lots of planning, hard work and help from many volunteers, the HES community built a beautiful pollinator garden. And since the garden has milkweed, the monarchs came!

The monarch life cycle begins when the female butterfly lays a tiny egg on the leaf of a milkweed plant. In 3-5 days, a very small caterpillar emerges. The caterpillar feasts on the milkweed leaves, eating and growing for about 2 weeks. Don’t be concerned if all the leaves are eaten in this process; during the growing season, the plant will add new leaves. When fully grown, the caterpillar crawls to a nearby plant or object to find a sturdy site where it will attach. The depicted Hartsfield caterpillar chose a bright blue railing as the site for the pupa stage.

An amazing transformation takes place in the pupa, or chrysalis, stage. The caterpillar spins a remarkable covering around its body that will be home for 10-14 days. Inside this chrysalis a metamorphosis, the incredible change from caterpillar to butterfly, occurs. The beautiful adult emerges, and over a couple of hours, begins to move its wings. Then it flies off to find flowers with nectar for food. The adult lives for just a few weeks, to start the cycle again. It’s only the last generation that hatches in late summer that will make the spectacular fall migration, living up to several months in their winter location.

We can help support populations of monarchs, other butterflies and pollinators by creating wildlife-friendly gardens at home and in neighborhoods.

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