Migrating Monarch Butterflies

Monarch butterflies roosting in tree

It’s fall, and the monarch migration has been ongoing for several weeks.  The butterflies that cruise through my area of Oklahoma are headed to Mexico.  These butterflies are probably the fourth generation removed from butterflies that went north last spring, yet they know exactly where to go and how to get there.

Monarch butterflies are the only insect known to migrate in this way.  They head south to overwinter, then in spring head north again.  They lay eggs, die, and the next generation goes a bit further north and repeats the cycle.  Come fall, the fourth generation is the one that gets to head back south–some travel over 2,500 miles!

The butterflies have been using our yard as a rest stop every year in the fall, and beyond going outside and taking a few pictures of them filling the trees, I didn’t really pay much attention.  This year I found out about the website Journey North, which tracks monarch butterflies and maps them.  You can add your observations to the website and boom! you have just become a citizen scientist.  How cool is that?  Registration is easy and free.  Journey North tracks several migrations, including hummingbirds and gray whales.  

Here’s a screenshot of a Journey North map from 9/19/18.  
And here’s one from today, 10/4/18.  

I take lots of pictures of the butterflies roosting in my yard, very few turn out well.  It’s hard to get close enough for a good picture without startling them, and they are always moving a little bit.  And there’s the wind… but here are some pictures anyway.

Turn off the sound, it’s windy!

The video above gets you a better idea of just how many butterflies are clinging to the tree branches and how amazing it is to see them flying around you.  (If you do happen to listen to the sound, my older son is referring to a trip to the Butterfly House in Key West, where he and his brother were terrorized by the ginormous Blue Morpho butterflies many years ago.  Good times.)

Unless you have been living under a rock (not that there’s anything wrong with that), you have probably heard about the alarming loss of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.   There are many reasons for this, including mowing, spraying, and even raking and bagging leaves.  

There are some easy ways to help support pollinators:  Don’t spray your yard with pesticides.  They kill ALL the bugs, good and bad.  Let some flowering weeds grow in a part of your yard.  Our whole yard is basically (short) flowering weeds… If you are in an addition where you are required to have a pristine lawn, at least put some native plants in your landscape.  Don’t rake and bag your leaves.  They are chock full of caterpillars and other future pollinators.  They will break down and help renew your soil.  Again, if you are required to have a clean yard, maybe there’s a patch in a back corner you can leave alone.

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation, in collaboration with several other states, has started timing their mowing to help improve monarch butterfly survival rates.  Roadsides are potentially a huge source of milkweed that the butterfly larvae eat.  They used to mow next to highways four times a year but have reduced it to “safety mows” in late June or July in several places.  They also planted a Monarch Waystation in Oklahoma City near I-35 recently.

Some people participate in butterfly tagging and some raise monarch butterflies in their yards to release.  One might wonder, do captive raised butterflies migrate like wild butterflies?  The answer is YES, yes they do!  Go to https://www.internationalbutterflybreeders.org/expertanswers/ for details about that!  The downside to captive raising monarchs is the possibility of releasing diseased butterflies into the general population.  

You can find out what type of milkweed (or butterfly weed) is native to your area by looking here.  Butterflies also need nectar plants, so consider adding a few of those as well.  Native plants have other benefits too; they provide shelter and forage for wildlife, and they are better adapted to the local climate.  Here’s a link to National Wildlife Federation’s native plant finder.

Here are just a few of the many monarch related websites:

Monarch Joint Venture

MonarchWatch.org

USDA Forest Service

Monarch Butterfly USA

Journey North

Several of these websites will send you free or very inexpensive milkweed seeds, and fall is a good time to direct sow milkweed.  You can also plant in spring from seed, start indoors in late winter, or buy plants from a reputable source.  

I hope you have been able to enjoy some butterflies in your own area this fall and plan to help them out next year.  

Migrating Monarch Butterflies from HouseofIngrams.com