Queen Butterflies Making Rare Appearance in Kansas City

 

by Sarah Beier
KCNPI Outreach Manager

Most Kansas Citians have grown up watching yearly fluctuations of Monarch butterflies as they search for nectar and milkweed in our gardens, parks and prairies.  And many are familiar with a common Monarch mimic, the Viceroy.  This year, however, a third orange butterfly with a royal name has shown up in a big way:  the Queen.

 

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Comparison of monarch (Danaus plexippus) vs queen (Danaus gilippus)  Graphic courtesy Betsy Betros.

The unusual season began around August 24th when a female was spotted depositing eggs in a garden north of the river.  Those eggs have since produced caterpillars, and further sightings have occurred throughout the region:

  • Late August – In a butterfly garden at a senior living facility in Olathe, KS
  • 9/1/18 – Backyard in Overland Park, KS
  • 9/1/18 – Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve, St. Louis
  • 9/1/18 – Backyard near Overland, MO
  • Around 9/1/18 – Two (male and female) in the gardens of a Kansas Master Naturalist near Tonganoxie, KS
  • 9/6/18 – Paola, KS at the K-State Extension office

Two sightings have occurred in Lawrence, including one at Monarch Watch.  At least one adult has been seen near Des Moines.  Most have been reported through social media.

Queens, like Monarchs, lay their eggs on milkweed, and the caterpillars sport a similar set of distinctive stripes.  They can be distinguished from monarchs as adults by the lack of black veining on the upper side of the wings, and the distribution of white spots on the underside. Queen caterpillars have three sets of tentacles, while Monarchs have only two.  Chrysalises are nearly identical, with Queens being slightly smaller.

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Above:  Queen caterpillar.  Below: Monarch caterpillar.  Photos courtesy Linda Williams.

The normal U.S. range of Queen butterflies extends throughout Texas into Western Oklahoma, and as far north as Colorado, but usually  only as far East as the very Western edge of Kansas.   They are somewhat common in South central Kansas. Because Queens do not migrate, the individuals that have made it this far north will not return to their home range and all stages will die off as freezing weather sets in.”Multiple butterfly species, such as most of our sulphur butterflies, red admirals, buckeyes and painted and American ladies, are immigrants to the Kansas City area each summer,” says naturalist and Idalia society member Linda Williams.  “Some of those will show a fall southwestward migration, others will die out in our area and be repopulated the next season.  Some are permanent residents farther south in Missouri and will overwinter there. Queen butterflies do none of the above, although occasionally there will be a stray one show up in our area.”

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Queen nectaring on Lantana. Photo courtesy Linda Williams.

Local butterfly experts are not sure why this year has brought more strays than usual.  Insects can sometimes be blown into unfamiliar territory by hurricane or storm winds.  Drought conditions can also send butterflies far out of their normal ranges as they search for food sources.   It’s simply too soon to tell.   Says Williams, “Time will tell what this influx means, if anything.  It could be just an anomaly.  Wouldn’t it be cool to see it on a regular basis in the future?”

For now, keep your eyes open and let us know if you find any of these regal visitors.  You can also report unusual insect sightings using websites such as bugguide.netiNaturalist, and Butterflies And Moths of North America.

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