Marvelous Migrating Monarchs Need Our Help

By Barb Elliot

Monarch butterflies are on the move.   I’ve been seeing them fly through my yard, above fields, over traffic jams, through neighborhoods.  These fragile creatures are heading southwest toward their ancient wintering grounds, stopping along the way to rest and sip nectar from late-blooming plants.  The peak of Monarch migration through our area is mid- to late-September, but you may still see Monarchs if you spend time outdoors.

This generation of Monarchs is different from those we saw in the summer.  Those Monarchs were intent on mating and laying eggs and only lived from two to six weeks.  But this generation will live for about eight months and is in the midst of an epic journey.   They will not mate, but instead are programmed to fly to a place they have never been before – mountains in Mexico where millions of Monarchs will roost together to survive the winter.  Some of them will fly as far as 3,000 miles!

Monarch Fall Migration Routes

Migrating Monarchs depend on nectar sources along their route for energy to complete the journey.  Next spring, the Monarchs that survive migration and the winter in Mexico will fly north into Texas, mate, lay eggs on milkweed plants and die.  Caterpillars will hatch from the eggs, eat milkweed, change into chrysalises, and emerge as adult Monarch butterflies that in turn fly north, mate, lay eggs and die.  The next generation will make its way farther north and east, repeat the cycle, and the U.S. and Canada east of the Rocky Mountains will once again be populated with Monarch butterflies during spring and summer.  The great, great, grandchildren of the Monarchs that are now flying south will be the ones we see during their migration to Mexico next fall.  Though some butterfly species complete a one-way migration, Monarchs are the only butterfly species in the world that accomplishes a two-way migration.

Monarchs roosting on their Mexican over-wintering grounds. National Geographic photo.

Migrating Monarchs face many threats, including bad weather, predators, and lack of food, but some have always survived to continue the species.  However, if current

This Monarch, caught by a praying mantis, won’t make it to Mexico. Cape May, NJ, September 12, 2012 Photo © Barb Elliot

trends continue, we are in danger of losing Monarchs altogether.  This year’s population, according to Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch, is about half the long-term average.   Monarch numbers have been declining since the late 1990’s, but the downward trend has accelerated since 2003.  Monarch Watch indicates the major cause for the decline is loss of food sources in the U.S. from development, routine mowing along roadsides, and the widespread use of herbicides that kill milkweed plants, the Monarch caterpillar’s only food.  Increased use of genetically modified corn and soy crops on mid-west farms is likely responsible for much of the population decline.  These crops are engineered to survive the spraying of herbicides which kill milkweeds and other plants growing in the fields.  Since the year 2000, about 100 million acres of former Monarch milkweed habitat in agricultural areas have been lost in this way. The milkweed habitats that are left are not sufficient to sustain the larger Monarch populations of the 1990s.

This Monarch near Austin, Texas is much closer to the Mexican wintering grounds, but faces drought conditions with few flowers to provide nectar. October 9, 2012. Photo © Barb Elliot

Monarchs need our help!  Monarch Watch has suggested a national effort to plant milkweeds in as many locations as possible, and have instituted a campaign called Bring Back the MonarchsIt’s not too late to get some milkweed started in your garden this fall, or you can wait till spring.  Perhaps you can think of additional locations that milkweeds could be planted, such as in schoolyards, parks, business properties, or roadsides.  Milkweeds do well in containers, too, so a large space is not necessary.  Of the five species of native milkweeds in my yard, my favorite is Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).  I found many Monarch eggs on my Swamp Milkweed this summer and also noticed that adults seemed to prefer the long-blooming Swamp Milkweed flowers’ nectar to that of other flowers in my yard.

You can help migrating Monarchs and other fall-flying butterflies by providing late-blooming nectar plants such as native asters and goldenrods.  Consider adding flowering plants to your yard that provide a succession of blooms from spring through fall.  You’ll be providing nectar not just for migrating Monarchs, but also for the Monarchs and other butterflies that fly earlier in the year.  Check the native perennials on our Backyards for Nature plant list for some suggestions.

Male Monarch on New England Aster in Barb’s yard. September 21, 2012. Photo © Barb Elliot

If you add milkweeds for Monarch caterpillars and nectar plants for the adults, you will be helping to make more Monarchs.  You’ll not only have the satisfaction of knowing you’re helping to increase the population, but you’ll be able to see these marvelous butterflies in your yard and even witness their metamorphosis of egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly! You can also have your yard certified as a Monarch Waystation through Monarch Watch.  This will mark your contribution to preserving Monarchs and show others how they, too, can help one of the true treasures of the natural world.

Certified Monarch Waystation sign from Monarch Watch. Photo by Barb Elliot

Below is a list of the locally native species of milkweed that I grow in my yard.

Locally Native Milkweed Plants**

Botanical Name Common Name Bloom Color & Period Light  & Soil Conditions
Asclepias incarnata Swamp   Milkweed Pink flowers; June & July Part to full sun, moist soil
Asclepias tuberosa Butterfly   Milkweed Orange flowers; June to August Sun, dry to average soil
Asclepias  verticillata Whorled   Milkweed White flowers; July & August Sun, dry to average soil
Asclepias purpurascens Purple   Milkweed Dark pink/purple flowers; June & July Part to full sun, dry/ average/moist soil
Asclepias syriaca* Common   Milkweed Pink flowers; June & July Sun, dry soil
  *Spreads rapidly by underground rhizomes;  best for large areas with other flowers and grasses
  **All are deer resistant

For a list of local nurseries that sell native milkweeds, click here.

For info on how to gather and plant milkweed seeds, click here.

Raising Monarchs

By Barb Elliot

In mid July, I discovered Monarch eggs on my Swamp Milkweed.

Monarch egg on Swamp Milkweed. (Photo © Barb Elliot)

A few days later I found three 1/8-inch caterpillars, probably a day or so old.  I took them inside to raise them.  Over the course of a month, I watched the amazing transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis to adult butterfly.  Watching the life stages of a Monarch rejuvenates my awe at the wonders of nature.

Once inside the aquarium container, two of the caterpillars ate Swamp Milkweed and eliminated “frass”, signs that they were healthy.  The third

Click on photo to find the one-day-old Monarch caterpillars (Photo © Barb Elliot)

caterpillar, however, never moved and soon died.   I was reminded that caterpillars’ lives are fragile and often very short.  Very few caterpillars of any species, perhaps less than one in a hundred, survive to become butterflies.  The threats are legion:  bacterial and fungal infections, predatory insects, spiders, birds, or other creatures looking to gulp down a neatly wrapped package of protein, plus parasites such as wasps that deposit eggs on a caterpillar so their larvae can eat the caterpillar from within.Though my yard is a certified Monarch Waystation providing optimal conditions for Monarch caterpillars and butterflies, life is tough for these creatures.  By rearing some indoors, I can give them a measure of safety.

Shed skin (above) and head capsule (below) (Photo © Barb Elliot)

A week later, at day eight of their lives, the caterpillars stopped eating temporarily, left the milkweed for the side of the container and remained motionless for a number of hours.  They were ready to shed their skin, which becomes too tight as they grow.  Each shed its tiny head capsule separately and then wiggled out of its skin.  This was one of five molts.  Then, it was back to eating more milkweed.  After all, most Monarch caterpillars increase their weight about 2,700 times from egg to chrysalis!


Caterpillar escapee (Photo © Barb Elliot)

Two days later, I noticed only one caterpillar in the container.  Alarmed, I searched and found the escapee a few feet away on my upright camera lens.  I quickly returned it to the container. It moved to the top and wove a silk “button” on the screen cover.  Soon it hung with its body in a “J” formation, its hind end suspended from the button. A couple of hours later, the second caterpillar was also hanging in this J shape.

Click highlighted text to see video

In the morning I watched closely for signs that the 11-day old caterpillars were about to metamorphose into the chrysalis or pupa.  Just before the transformation, each began rocking and straightening out slightly.The antenna-like tentacles drooped and looked almost segmented. Then, the skin began to split at the head end. Each caterpillar wriggled furiously as the skin split up its full length and then fell away.

Pupating caterpillar movie (Video © Barb Elliot)

At first, each pupa was yellowish green and wider at the bottom than the top.  Gradually the color changed to emerald green, the shape became wider at the top and the distinctive, jewel-like gold and black markings appeared on the surface of each chrysalis.  It is while in the chrysalis or pupal stage that a caterpillar undergoes metamorphosis and changes into a butterfly.

Bejeweled Monarch chrysalis (Photo © Barb Elliot)

Chrysalis the night before Monarch emerged (Photo © Barb Elliot)

Nine days later, I noticed a few dark marks on the chrysalises, and by the tenth evening, the orange and black of forming wings were visible through the clear shell of each pupa.  While I was asleep both butterflies emerged from their chrysalises.  Early the next morning I saw two beautiful, fresh butterflies – one male and one female.

Newly emerged from chrysalis (Photo © Barb Elliot)

They were hanging from their former homes, drying and occasionally pumping their wings.   I waited a few hours so they would be completely dry before I took the container outside.  With a little nudging, each climbed on my finger and quickly flew off to the top of a tree where I lost sight of them.

I like to think that they stayed in my yard to nectar on flowers I grow for butterflies.  Hopefully, they found mates and the female laid eggs. This next generation of Monarch butterflies, the last of this summer, will go through the same marvelous transformations and then fly 2,000 miles to their over-wintering grounds in central Mexico.  That same generation will fly north into Texas in the spring of 2013 and begin the annual succession of Monarch generations that re-populate central and eastern North America each spring and summer.  I hope to host Monarchs in my yard next year, raise some more caterpillars indoors, and once again experience the thrill of watching one of the true wonders of nature.

Female Monarch on Swamp Milkweed (Photo © Barb Elliot)


For information on how you can help Monarchs and/or get your yard certified, click here: Monarch Waystation

Stay tuned for a future blog with more info on Monarchs and a national effort to help them.

Below is a list of the native milkweed plants that Barb grows in her yard.

Locally Native Milkweed Plants**

Botanical Name Common Name Bloom Color & Period Light  & Soil Conditions
Asclepias incarnata Swamp   Milkweed Pink flowers; June & July Part to full sun, moist soil
Asclepias tuberosa Butterfly   Milkweed Orange flowers; June to August Sun, dry to average soil
Asclepias  verticillata Whorled   Milkweed White flowers; July & August Sun, dry to average soil
Asclepias purpurascens Purple   Milkweed Dark pink/purple flowers; June & July Part to full sun, dry/ average/moist soil
Asclepias syriaca* Common   Milkweed Pink flowers; June & July Sun, dry soil
  *Spreads rapidly by underground rhizomes;  best for large areas with other flowers and grasses
  **All are deer resistant