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Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus), a Comprehensive Guide in 12 Sections

Introduction to the Monarch Butterfly

The Monarch Butterfly is one of the most well distributed and well-known butterflies in North America. It is a member of the family Nymphalidae and is in the subfamily Danainae. This butterfly was first named and described by Carl von Linnaeus in 1758 based on collections by Mark Catesby. A distinctive orange and black butterfly, it utilizes plants of the genus Asclepias (Milkweeds) as a host plant. This butterfly has declined in number along with the milkweeds because of habitat loss in their wintering grounds in Mexico and conversion to agriculture.

Taxonomy and Naming of the Monarch Butterfly

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) with Monarch butterfly.
Monarch Butterfly on Purple Coneflower — Robert Coxe, Image


This butterfly was first named and described by Carl von Linnaeus, a Swedish taxonomist, in Systema Naturae (1758). The type specimen was described by Mark Catesby an early American naturalist. It is a member of the family Nymphalidae and is in the subfamily Danainae.

Meaning of the Scientific and Common Names

Scientific Name

The genus name, Danaus, apparently comes from the Greek King of Libya. A number of the butterfly genera come from Greek mythological names. The species name, plexippus, is the name of the twin brother of Danaus in Greek mythology (Wordsense).

Common Name

The common name is likely derived from “Monarchs” or royalty. Hence a royal butterfly.

Physical Description of Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

Monarch butterfly on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Butterfly Weed with Monarch Butterfly — Laura Perlick, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


  • Color: The Monarch Butterfly is known for its characteristic orange and black veins with white spots on the edge. The females tend to be darker and have less defined veins. In Hawaii, there is a white variant of the butterfly that has been reported (Clarke and Rothschild 1980) and (Gibbs and Taylor 1998).
  • Wingspan: 3 to 5 inches
  • Active Flying Time: Monarchs are generally flying from April to October depending on whether they are migrating north, a resident, or are migrating south. In the overwintering areas they can be flying year-round.

Lifecycle of this Butterfly

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) caterpillar on leaf.
Monarch Caterpillar — Maria L. Evans, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


The eggs of the Monarch are a light green color and are ribbed.


The larvae, or caterpillars, are about 2 inches long and have white, black and yellow stripes.


The chrysalis is a light green color with gold accents and a lid-like structure.


The adults are the characteristic orange and black color and there may be several broods in a season. The adults are known to migrate north from Mexico and back each, which is unique among North American butterflies (Bousemann and Sternburg 2001). There are however some populations in southern California, Arizona, and Florida that do not migrate and breed year-round (Urguhart, et al 1968).

Range of the Monarch Butterfly in the United States and Canada

Range map of Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) in the United States and Canada.

Monarchs are located throughout North America except for the far northern reaches and Alaska. It is also found on Hawaii. This butterfly migrates to Mexico each year to breed and then migrates back north the next year. The resident populations during the summer are non-migratory (Bousemann and Sternburg 2001). Monarch Butterflies are essentially found worldwide (Animal Diversity Web). The populations in Europe may have become established with the introduction of tropical milkweed (Asclepias currassavica) in the continent (Martin and Gurrea 1988).


Meadow habitat in Europe.
Meadow Habitat — Leonhard Lenz, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Monarchs are very flexible with their habitats but enjoy open areas such as fields and meadows where there is milkweed (Asclepias spp.) present.

Host Plants

Pink flowers of swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) from Pennsylvania.
Flowers of Swamp Milkweed — Cbaile19, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The larvae, or caterpillars, of the Monarch Butterfly feed on members of the Milkweeds, such as common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and others.

Nectar Plants

Sweet joe-pye-weed (Eutrochium maculatum) in a garden.
Spotted Joe-Pye-Weed — Author Image

This butterfly nectars on a variety of plants. Some of the plants include butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), joe-pye weed (Eutrochium spp.), and many others.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

What other butterflies are similar to this one?

Because of its distastefulness to the birds and other predators, there are a number of other butterflies that like to mimic the Monarch. One of these is the Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus), which is probably the most similar looking. The Viceroy differs in that it has a solid stripe near the bottom of the hindwings and it is smaller. Another butterfly that looks somewhat similar on quick glance is the Queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus). The top of this butterfly is more of a solid orange with a brown hue than the monarch, but when the wings are closed it is very similar. Like the Viceroy, this butterfly is also smaller than the Monarch. The spots of the butterfly have the appearance of large eyes and can serve to ward off predators.

Are there any interesting facts about the Monarch?

The Monarch butterfly is the state insect of Illinois. Being a well-known butterfly is it often used as a bell whether of environmental integrity in a lot of places.

Are there any other names for the Monarch Butterfly?

According to Wikipedia, this butterfly can be called the common tiger, wanderer, and black-veined brown butterfly.


  • Bouseman, John K. and James G. Sternburg. 2001. Field Guide to the Butterflies of Illinois. Champaign: Illinois Natural History Survey. Manual 10.
  • Church, S.H. 1981. Danaus plexippus L. in Sussex. Entolomogist’s Record and Journal of Variation 93: 202-202.
  • Clarke, Cyril A. and Miriam Rothschild. 1980. A New Mutant of Danaus plexippus ssp. erippus. Journal of the Lepidopterists Society 34: 224-229.
  • Gibbs, Lawrence and O.R. Taylor. 1998. The White Monarch. Department of Entomology at University of Kansas.
  • Martin, J. and Gurrea, P. 1988. Establishment of a population of Danaus plexippus (Linnaeus, 1758) (Lep. Danaidae) in southwest Europe. Entomologist’s Record and Journal of Variation 100: 163-168.
  • Pyle, Robert Michael. 1981. National Audubon Society Field Guide to Butterflies. New York: Chanticleer Press.
  • Urguhart, Frederick Albert, Norah Roden Urguhart, and Francis Munger. 1968. Population of Danaus plexippus in Southern California. Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera 7(4): 169-181.

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Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe is a professional ecologist and botanist who has worked as the State Ecologist of Delaware and as an ecologist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He is also a former Past-President of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science. He currently is an innkeeper at McMullen House Bed & Breakfast LLC and a web designer and owner for Silphium Design LLC.