Monarch Butterflies Developing at Hidden Oaks

Butterfly 2A natural wonder that typically enjoys great favor with humans is the monarch butterfly. An “ambassador” insect, or one that represents a genre such as pollinators, these striking beauties make headlines across North America. Ask any second grader, and she will tell you about the struggles of this tenacious insect that depends on one plant, milkweed, for survival.

As wild milkweed decreases, national organizations and neighborhood nature centers encourage people to plant milkweed varieties to support monarchs and other pollinators. With their widespread popularity, there’s no surprise in seeing the delight in children observing monarch caterpillars being raised at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale, Va.

Hidden Oaks has championed monarch butterfly awareness and stewardship since 1996. Currently, the center hosts more than 45 caterpillars munching their way through native common and swamp milkweeds. The first adult butterflies were tagged the week of August 22, 2017. Campers assisted releasing a boy and a girl monarch and cheered the two on their way southwest with a loud, “Adios Amigos!”

Unlike past years, these are not the first monarchs reared at Hidden Oaks in 2017. Naturalists were surprised to have three monarch caterpillars donated to the center in late April. Monarchs usually do not arrive in the Washington area before July. Journey North, an online science education project, records the first spotting of monarch eggs throughout the country. Normally, the D.C. area spots monarch eggs on milkweed after June 20. Recently the date has been creeping earlier on the calendar, with this year’s mid-April sighting the earliest on record.

That poses the question of why monarchs are turning away from their historic path of repopulating the Gulf States and the Midwest in favor of heading our way. Whereas bountiful fields of welcoming milkweed and nectar plants would be an ideal reason, we cannot boast of such bounty. The area experienced a warm spring, which could have confused the wandering monarchs. Possibly a few monarchs zigged when they should have zagged, and they ended up in the mid-Atlantic region. Likely the stress of not finding enough milkweed in their normal climes made the pregnant monarchs push further on until they found milkweed just a couple of inches high anywhere.

Monarch caterpillars need approximately 18 inches of plant to develop from egg to chrysalis. Monarchs only eat milkweed, and their eggs can only be laid on milkweed. The mom butterfly tastes plants with the tarsi, or hairs, on her feet, to assure her eggs are on the correct plant. Laying eggs on recently emerged milkweed, rather than mature milkweed, is a sign of stress.

Usually the monarchs winging their way through the D.C. area are the last of four generations produced over a calendar year. The last generation is physiologically different from the previous three. This last generation does not typically have the benefit of fresh milkweed and is generally in a nonproductive mode until after their “diapause,” or overwintering, in Mexico. The previous three generations, which can mate within a week of emerging from their chrysalides, have a life span of about six weeks. The fourth generation, which can live six to eight months, mates after spending months resting – with millions of other monarchs – in the Transvolcanic Mountain range about 60 miles northwest of Mexico City.

Butterfly 1The monarchs raised at Hidden Oaks in April reached adulthood but failed to mate in captivity, so they were set free. Tagging is only done with the final generation of the year, so those monarchs flew off with no identifying features. Hidden Oaks’ current batch of monarchs will be tagged and released over the next few weeks during monarch tagging programs.

This year, the monarch caterpillars at Hidden Oaks are sharing the spotlight with spicebush and black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, who are busily crunching their own favorite leaves, spicebush and parsley, respectively. Monarchs and other butterfly species amaze us with their seemingly magical transformations and their grace of flight.

Visit Hidden Oaks to pick up a free packet of native swamp milkweed seeds to attract these and other pollinators to your backyard or school. Share the joy of wonder with your family and friends by getting first-hand experience with the variety of native butterflies, and marvel at the mysteries of monarchs that scientists have yet to completely unravel.

Author Suzanne Holland is the Assistant Manager at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale, Va.

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About Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park system is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 school athletic fields. PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

1 thought on “Monarch Butterflies Developing at Hidden Oaks

  1. Pingback: The So Called Ecological Garden – The Dirty Sneaker

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