by Karen Miller, Master Gardener, Entomologist Specialist
Which red butterfly have you had in your garden? Is it a Monarch, a Queen, a Viceroy, or maybe a Soldier? All of these are considered “red butterflies”, but the favorites here in West Texas have to be the Monarch and the Queen. Do you know which is which? The Queen butterfly (Danaus galippus) and the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) are both brush footed butterflies and are sometimes called milkweed butterflies.
Both species consume milkweed and sequester toxins from the plant in their bodies. This toxin makes these butterflies distasteful to predator such as birds. Both the Queen and Monarch use a warning coloration of bright orange and red tones that generally warn of toxic qualities in prey. Both species offer the same bad taste to the predators and reinforce that bad taste with a very similar appearance.
These two butterflies are very similar, but can be easy to tell apart once you become familiar with them.
Queens are a darker, richer shade of orange and their wing patterns are quite different. With their wings open, it is easy to tell them apart, since Queens do not have the black veining in their wings like the Monarch does. When their wings are closed it is very easy to get confused, because both show black veining underneath. However, Queens do not have black veins on their upper wings and have white spots on their lower wings. Monarch underwings are also a paler shade of orange with no white spots on the lower wing.
Monarch and Queen caterpillars are similar also. Both caterpillars have black, white and yellow stripes, but the easiest way to tell these caterpillars apart is to count the number of threadlike tubercles that protrude from their backs, the Monarch caterpillar has two sets, while the Queen caterpillar has three sets. The third set is found about midway down its body. It is the caterpillar’s main responsibility to eat and gather as much nutritional energy as possible. This gathered energy will determine the health of the adult butterfly. A larva with a poor diet will result in a smaller adult butterfly. Larvae with abundantly healthy foliage will result in healthy butterflies, so plant lots of milkweed in your garden.
Both butterfly species feed on many flower pollens but rely only on the milkweed plant as their butterfly host plant. Monarch and Queen butterflies prefer milkweed, butterfly bushes, asters, mistflowers, Joe-Pye weed, zinnias and pentas, just to name a few, as their nectar sources.
Both the Monarch and Queen Butterflies are named for royalty. Chrysalis is Greek for “Gold”. Both of these butterflies have a jade green chrysalis with gold shimmers. The top of the chrysalis is lined with dots of gold that nearly circle it. Because this appeared to look like the crown of their king, the American Colonists named these butterflies the Monarch and the Queen.
Now I am going to switch gears, so to speak, and talk about how you can garden for these red butterflies and many more. The plants listed as nectar plants for the Monarch and Queen butterflies are a good start to your own butterfly garden and will attract many more species to your yard.
All adult butterflies are attracted to flowers, but a butterfly garden will need to also have caterpillar host plants. These are plants that the female lays her eggs on to supply the caterpillar the food it will need, after hatching, to develop into an adult butterfly. Some of our common vegetables also serve as caterpillar host plants, so try to plant extra vegetables for you and the caterpillars. One other bonus is a butterfly garden also attracts hummingbirds.
Butterflies are cold-blooded and need warmth to fly and feed, so look for a sunny area that is somewhat sheltered from our West Texas wind to plant your garden. A butterfly bush or flowering shrub can provide both shelter and food.
Host and nectar plants are very important to your garden area. Even though the adult butterfly will feed on the nectar of most flowering plants, the caterpillar often restricts its diet to a single group of closely
related host plants, sometimes even only a single species of host plant.
A well-planned butterfly garden is one that has blooming flowers throughout spring, summer, and early fall. Such a garden provides a continuous food source and plants varying in heights which accommodates large and small butterflies.
It is a good idea to limit any use of insecticides and herbicides in our butterfly garden. Insecticides kill beneficial insects as well as those considered pest. Herbicides can eliminate the food sources for the caterpillar and can poison the caterpillar as well. Butterflies have many predators, including praying mantis, wasps, spiders, birds, ants, and some predatory flies. Most of these are considered good bugs, but can be controlled by traps rather than pesticides, if you so choose.
If you have any questions, contact the Texas A & M Extension Service office at 432-498-4071 or the Midland County Extension office at 432-686-4700. You can also check out the Permian Basin Master Gardener website at westtexasgardening.org for a list of plants recommended for our area.