All About Monarchs

Monarchs offer an amazing view into the intricate nature of the wild. Their science name, Danaus Plexippus, Greek for “Sleepy Transformation,” gets part of the story right, but not the epic whole.  

These butterflies execute a highly evolved migration soaring 2,800 miles from a forests in Mexico to far northern places including the Adirondacks, and then back again over the course of three generations. Each adult butterfly only lives for four to five weeks, going from caterpillar, pupa, chrysalis, to butterfly in just 9 to 14 days, but they cover plenty of ground in their short lives. Learn more about them, how you can help them on their way and enjoy their company.

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The Monarch Migration

Widely recognized as the world’s foremost expert on monarch butterflies, Professor Lincoln Brower of Sweet Briar College came to The Wild Center in August of 2016 to talk about the monarch migration.

The event was made possible by the generous support of AdkAction.org and by Wild Center supporters. 

How to Grow Monarchs

Monarch butterflies depend on milkweed plants.

They lay their eggs on them because they are the only food the monarch caterpillars eat. Monarch numbers are declining, partly due to the loss of open spaces where milkweeds grow. You can help give monarchs a boost by creating a milkweed garden. What’s the best way to encourage monarchs to turn your backyard into a nursery? Offer them food, drink, a place to stay and a milkweed patch where they can leave their eggs. Here is how to set up your own monarch stopover.

Plant native flowering plants. Many butterflies and native flowering plants have co-evolved over time and depend on each other for reproduction and survival. 

Include host plants. Butterflies lay their eggs on specific plants called hosts. Monarchs only lay their eggs on milkweed so it is critical to include native milkweed plants in your butterfly garden. Monarchs will lay their eggs on the leaves and the young caterpillars feed on the plant. The milkweed contains toxins called cardiac glycosides that the caterpillars must ingest, which causes the monarch butterflies and caterpillars to be poisonous to most predators. Milkweed flowers make a colorful splash in gardens, meadows, and other habitats. There are over 100 different milkweed species and monarchs use about 30 species so visit plantmilkweed.org to learn what species to plant in your region.

If you can provide blooming flowers all summer long that will lure more butterflies. Monarchs need nectar from flowers all the time so choose plants that bloom in early, mid, and late summer.

Butterflies also need a place to rest. Flat stones offer them a place to bask in the sun and rest. Avoid insecticides because they kill insects. Include water. Butterflies can often be found puddling – drinking water and extracting minerals from damp areas of the ground. If you put coarse sand in a shallow pan and add it to your habitat butterflies will use it to drink and collect the minerals they need – make sure to keep it moist by adding water. 

 

Butterfly Garden Walk with Chip Taylor

Take a short walk into a butterfly garden with the founder of Monarch Watch, Chip Taylor, and see how simple it is to create a butterfly haven.

Watch Lincoln Brower's Wild Center Presentation

Lincoln Brower, world's foremost monarch expert, spoke in June of 2014 for a live stream from the Flammer Theater at The Wild Center. You can watch the show here.

Monarchs in Winter

Travel with the BBC to witness Monarchs crowding in one of their winter homes.

Dr. Chip Taylor with the Latest News on Monarch Butterfiles

What is going on with monarch butterflies? Is the reported collapse in 2013 a sign of things to come? What does the future hold? You can learn the behind-the-scenes story from this Wild Center presentation by Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch.

Follow the Monarch Migration on Google Earth

Want to follow the migration from Mexico? You can see the whole amazing chain of events on this Google Earth journey.

The Man Behind the Monarchs

Born in Toronto, Fred Urquhart’s love for butterflies began at a young age. He would watch monarchs in the summertime flutter through the air and dream about where they went in the wintertime. He was enthralled with the world of insects, especially butterflies, and would spend countless hours observing them. 

Fred was just 17 in 1927 when he wrote to Dr. C.B. Williams, a leading authority on insect migration, asking him if he thought that the monarch butterfly was migrant. His inquisitive nature led him to eventually pursuing a doctorate and then becoming a zoology professor, marrying a fellow teacher and lover of butterflies, Norah Patterson. The two experimented with ways to track butterflies, sharing a burning desire to answer the monarch migration question. 

I gazed in amazement at the sight, butterflies – millions upon millions of monarch butterflies

— Fred A. Urquhart, PhD
National Geographic August 1976

A Scientist's New Method

Tagging a fluttering insect that weighs only a few grams is pretty difficult. This was a challenge that Fred and Norah Urquhart had to overcome in their journey to track monarchs. 

After spending years trying to figure out a way to successfully tag the monarchs, a tedious process because their wings are very delicate and moisture-sensitive, Fred and Norah finally had a breakthrough in 1940. Thanks to a recent innovation that created the sticky material we now use on post-it notes, they created a tag with a similar material that managed to stick. Once they began tagging huge scores of monarchs the two soon realized they were going to need some help. 

Fred and Norah founded the very first Insect Migration Association, known today as Monarch Watch, enlisting thousands of volunteer “citizen scientists” all across North America to tag hundreds of thousands of butterflies. The intention was to track the tagged monarch’s migration routes. In 1975, this ultimately helped Dr. Urquhart find out that these monarchs migrated from Canada to the forests of Central Mexico. 

Click here for Monarch Watch

Ever since I was a child I have marveled at this spectacle of nature, which is powerful evidence that life is a miracle. We must remain committed to the conservation of these fragile creatures and their threatened habitats

— Felipe Calderón, President of Mexico, 2012 (born in Morelia, Mexico near the discovered butterfly sanctuaries)

A Truly Marvelous Migration

It takes two to three generations of butterflies to migrate north from Mexico through the U.S. up to Canada. Over time, the monarchs have developed a ‘Super Generation’ to make the longest leg of the journey South. This ‘Super Generation’ is bigger and lives eight to 10 times longer than subsequent generations. These super butterflies travel as far as Canada to Mexico. Unlike other generations, they do not mate during the journey.

They stay in Mexico over the winter to rest and after several months make the first part of their journey back to the U.S. and Canada. By the time they get to Texas, they lay eggs and die, thus starting this amazing cycle again. Scientists have not been able to fully explain what triggers this mystery of the natural world. Maybe there's another young and aspiring lover of butterflies out there who will seek the answer to this scientific question, just as Dr. Urquhart sought out where the monarch's went.