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Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Elusive Monarch Butterfly and Issues of Proof

Yesterday, the Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies returned to my purple milkweed. And there was much rejoicing!

Great Spangled Fritallary Butterflies on my Purple Milkweed
They were here last year at about this time, and now they were back.

I would have liked to get closer to get a better picture, but two factors were at play to keep me from doing so: the purple milkweed is surrounded by poison ivy plants, and butterflies -- even the Great Spangled Fritillary -- are flighty. They will seldom sit around posing for pictures if you insist on getting close. Not like bumblebees, who will let you come in for a tight shot and let you film them for hours.

In this rather long video starring a bumblebee, even a dragonfly makes a brief guest appearance. But no, that was not the guest I was longing to see.

Happy as I am to be reunited with the Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies, and to see  the bumblebees and the honey bees and all the many other insects enjoying the milkweed, there was one guest that  I especially longed to have take refreshment on the milkweed. But every time I went to check what was going on there, I saw many other insects, and not that special one.

I was able to stick my head in between the fence boards to get really close to the bumblebee.

But still there was no Monarch butterfly, the guest for whom all this milkweed is supposed to serve as a special incubator. I went for  a walk after seeing the Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies, and I actually managed to locate the lost Common Milkweed that I thought had been eradicated. It was pushed up right against the fence, and its buds were looking underdeveloped.

My Common Milkweed Yesterday

Because it was surrounded by poison ivy and honeysuckle, the plant had somehow sprung up right against the wooden fence to the pasture.

The Common Milkweed is pushed up against the fence and late to bloom
But this could not account for the failure of the Monarch butterfly to show up. All these conservationists have been telling us for years: "Monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed, and the caterpillars only eat milkweed." (Source: So whether the plant ever flowers or not should not be the issue for Monarch propagation, as long as the leaves and stems are there. Where had all the Monarch butterflies gone? Didn't they like my milkweed? I was disappointed.

And then, across the pasture, I spotted what looked remarkably like a Monarch butterfly. It flew in my direction, and I started filming it, but even though it was very close, it kept flying around, dancing circles around me at high speed, and when I looked at the video, all I could see was that I had been moving the camera erratically -- but no butterfly visible! It was as if the butterfly had been taunting me, offering evidence of its existence that only I could see! Watch the video above at normal speed, and you will probably come to the conclusion that I was imagining the whole thing!

If you stop the video at this spot, you can catch a glimpse of the Monarch butterfly

Just like the rabbits on my land, the Monarch butterfly was showing itself to me, while using highly evolved evasive maneuvers to ensure I could never catch it. To see how very fast it was going, we need to take account that in the above still from the video I had my camera pointed at an easterly angle. But a few seconds later, the Monarch appears in a shot aimed due south.

The Monarch by the ripened service berries
 Even though I was facing south now and it had just come in from the east,  already the Monarch had reversed its direction and was heading back the way it came.

A few seconds later, I caught a glimpse of it with my camera facing north, but the butterfly was already  headed east. This is what flying around in circles at high speed looks like! In between these relatively clear shots, the butterfly was moving faster than my camera could follow. If I had not thought to pause the video on my computer and take screenshots,  I would probably have ended up discarding this video, like many previous attempts to film fast moving butterflies.

So yes, there was a Monarch butterfly on my property all along, but it would not stop and pose for me on the purple milkweed, like my more cooperative guests, the Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies and the bumblebee. Sometimes the speed of a subject will prevent us from seeing what is going on right before our very eyes. We had the same problem with Bow before he started using our hands as a pointing device. Our intern Carrie Stengel discusses the problem in the video below.

I have been characterized by some people who read this blog as "an innocent" with a rich "inner life", implying that I imagine everything that goes on with Bow, and in particular his ability to spell words. But did you know that the first time Bow spelled out what he wanted, instead of pointing at lexigrams, it was not with me?

Eden and Bow

 It was with our new Project Bow intern, Eden Michaelov.

It was Eden who decided to put the letters up on the glass that day. And it was with Eden that Bow first spelled.

When I realized that Bow would not point on his own, and that this was going to be characterized as a Clever Hans effect by anyone who saw it, I could have given up. It would have been the smart thing to do, because there is no profit in what I am doing now. I could just pretend I did not see the pretty butterfly, and all would be well with the social world. I could maybe have gotten a job doing something else. That's what Herbert Terrace did the moment his funding ran out. But the kind of madness that I suffer from is that when I see a butterfly that no one else can see, I keep trying to think of ways to make them see it. The facts do not change, just because people cannot see.(And in fact, others have seen what I saw: everyone who worked with Bow since 2007 has seen him spell.)

It is not a crime against society to fail to fall into line with the current consensus. The greater crime is to recant under pressure, like Joan of Arc or Galileo. Rather than being an innocent who sees visions that are not there, I am a scientist who has an open mind to the existence of  uncooperative butterflies.


  1. I love seeing the old pictures of Bow, and seeing how much he has grown today. I am still trying to photograph butterflies, but I did capture a skunk with my cell phone. That was something I had never seen in person, until last night. It made eye contact with me.

    1. Thanks, Julia. Bow and I both enjoy looking at old photos of him. Butterflies can be very challenging to photograph.

      You me a skunk! Wow! And it made eye contact?! I am going to go see if you have blogged about that!

    2. I meant, met a skunk. :) I was too excited about that to type right.

  2. While scattered milkweed is good to have, monarchs prefer to have a grouping of milkweed plants - a small (or larger) patch. The male monarch will find a 'patch' of milkweed and guard it against other males to prevent them from claiming it. He'll attract many females to it, mate with them and they will lay their eggs on the plants. If I recall correctly, I read that 1 plant can only host one caterpillar...they are voracious eaters and can quickly defoliate a milkweed plant as they grow. That is the reason they like to find patches of milkweed.
    It will be interesting to see if your milkweed plants can fight through all the poison ivy and multiply (this type multiplies through rhizomes, but it still has to be able to get to sunlight in order to grow.
    And I find it to be a very cool thing about the monarchs that the milkweed does not have to be blooming for them to find it - they can smell the milk / sap and find the plants!

    1. So you think my milkweed patch is not inviting enough for the Monarch, who was just passing through?

  3. I think it will be - your milkweed looks like it has a few more plants in there than it did the last time I saw it, but it's hard to tell for me - would you say it has more stalks this year? I'm not 100% sure but I looked really close at your pictures and your Monarch appears to be a male. He was probably searching for a concentrated patch of milkweed. He will increase his odds of mating and producing offspring if he has a large patch to show off to the females.
    When we first moved here, I only had 3 Butterfly weed plants on this whole property and didn't see 1 Monarch butterfly for 2 or 3 years. Since burning and removing the competing fescue (which chokes out a lot of nice native plants), I have a lot more milkweed and now the Monarchs stop and lay eggs and males defend the small patches that have cropped up everywhere.
    It's interesting when you think about it - there are limited resources (milkweed), so the males compete to claim the most territory they can that will allow them the maximum reproductive success.

    1. Yes, I do think my purple milkweed is multiplying. The common milkweed, by contrast, is not doing as well. And the butterfly milkweed seems static.

      It's exciting to think that the Monarch I saw was a male! And yes, I do find it interesting that even butterflies are territorial. Property rights seem to be something every animal on earth understands -- not just a human invention!

  4. More information:
    Because females lay hundreds eggs, they must find hundreds of milkweed plants. This is because they usually lay only one egg on each plant. (Females actually visit even more milkweed plants than they lay eggs upon. They seem to reject most milkweed plants they see. Females will fly around in a field full of milkweed and land on several plants before laying an egg.)

    1. Well, I don't think I have hundreds of plants yet.