side view of monarch butterfly on flower

The Flight of the Monarch

You may consider yourself a good traveler, but are you able to just pick a spot on the map and find it without any directions? Somehow, monarch butterflies have the ability to fly from northern US (even as far north as Canada) all the way down to California and Mexico. With no Google maps telling them to turn left in 300 feet, it’s a serious journey (up to 3,000 miles) and it can take them two months to get there. Scientists are still trying to understand what drives these graceful flutterers to undertake such an arduous task. It is commonly believed that they utilize the sun, the earth’s magnetic field, and some kind of internal compass to guide them on their journey. Though there are countless unanswered questions about these creatures and their mysterious migratory patterns, we’ll tell you what we do know.

The Life Cycle of a Monarch

Spring comes, and the monarchs that have been hibernating in the south (Mexico and California) start to “wake up” from their long winter nap. They seek mates, and then begin their journey north. They typically fly between 50-100 miles per day, but the longest recorded flight of a monarch in one day was 265 miles! Once they reach their destination, the females lay eggs on the milkweed plant. 

After 3-5 days, the eggs hatch into larvae, and the feasting begins. Remember the book about the hungry caterpillar who eats his way through several pages of fruit, cookies, and other picnic edibles, until it grows bigger and turns into a chrysalis? It’s as if the caterpillar is a teenager, stuffing Hot Pockets in their mouth and drinking entire gallons of milk. However, instead of milk, these caterpillar youngsters eat milkweed — and that’s all. This amazing plant provides everything they need for the next chapter of life. After 9-14 days of living it up in “Milkweed City”, the larvae go through the stunning transformation of metamorphosis. 

The caterpillar hangs from a branch of a tree, or even on the side of a building, and wraps itself in a chrysalis. It will be here for 8-13 days. From the outside, it may look like a blob wasting its life. If we could only see through those chrysalis walls! The caterpillar is busily transforming to a butterfly, shedding its old form and capabilities. 

Side note: Isn’t that a healthy reminder for us? We may also feel like we are dull blobs; not being energetic or productive enough, or not having interesting news for our friends — but perhaps we’re merely going through a phase known as “growth.” We may even see others in this seemingly low phase, but we can always extend empathy and support to them, believing that they will soon be emerging from their basements with a different hair-do and a newfound passion for Russian literature! 

Back to the moment when the monarch emerges, or “ecloses,” from its chrysalis. It takes a moment to hang outside of its chrysalis to straighten its legs and let its wings fill with fluid, straighten, and dry. This enables flight. Once it is ready to flap its wings for the first time, it then has an appetite for nectar. Going from plant to plant, it drinks in sweet nectar through its long, straw-like tongue (known as a proboscis). As it flutters from flower to flower, it gathers pollen and distributes it all around. It is one of our beloved pollinators!

2 monarchs on flower

After only five days, the adult monarch is ready to become a mother. She finds a mate and flies north, selecting only the finest milkweed to receive her batch of several hundred eggs. This entire life cycle repeats itself for four generations, with the next batch flying farther and farther North. The fourth generation is unique because they are gifted a longer lifespan. They have a serious journey ahead of them: a migration all the way back to the south, either to the mountains of southern Mexico, or to California. It can take between 8-10 weeks to get there, and they use wind currents and thermal waves to glide, rather than actively fly. This, along with their habit of taking breaks as it gets too windy, helps them conserve energy during their long trip. They are powered by nectar, and even by their munching of milkweed as larvae.

Once they reach their southerly destination, they hang in trees, protected from predators and extreme temperatures. Six months of hibernating in this warmer climate prepares them once again to start the multi-generational journey north. It’s as if they press the “start over” button, laying out the path for the next four generations.

The Plight of the Monarch

Unfortunately, the monarch population has declined 80% in the last twenty years. One major reason is that milkweed is becoming harder and harder to find, and as you have already learned, these butterflies only lay eggs on this plant. Large-scale farmers are eradicating milkweed because some varieties are more aggressive, while land is quickly being converted into huge, agricultural production parcels and bustling urban areas. Harsh weather, deforestation, and climate change resulting in unexpected storms, lower temperatures and heavier rains are also affecting these beautiful travelers. 

What can we do? 

butterfly weed
Butterfly Weed
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault
  1. Plant milkweed! Select a sunny spot in your yard that is protected from strong winds, so the adult females can lay their eggs. Make sure to handle the plant with care; the milky sap can cause contact dermatitis on us humans, and can even be harmful for our eyes. We have success with Butterfly Weed and Swamp Milkweed in our area.
  2. Plant a variety of flowers that bloom at different times in spring and summer, for the adults to gather nectar. Here is a solid list of plants butterflies love. Additionally, consider opting for flower gardens on your property rather than lawns.
  3. Consider creating a monarch “way station” (habitat), not only in your garden, but also in unused neighborhood plots of land. Visit the Monarch Watch website to learn more. 
  4. Don’t use herbicides or pesticides! Challenge yourself to keep plants intended for butterflies, free of these harmful chemicals.
  5. Educate your children. The more we talk about these magnificent creatures and their travel and metamorphosis talents, the more our children can gain insight into the wonderful world of Monarchs. They are the next generation; it will soon be their responsibility. 
  6. Play the board game “Mariposas” (learn how to play from our friends at BoardGameGeek), which is all about the migration of the monarchs. The game begins with the butterflies starting out in Mexico. They begin to make their way north, and along the journey, there are many obstacles they need to overcome. They must stop at certain “way stations” in order to make it to the next stop. It is an awesome visual for learning about the life of these creatures.

An awesome tool for tracking sightings of monarch eggs, larva and adults is journeynorth.org.

Until next thyme!
My Thyme Gardens

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