The Migration of the Monarch Butterfly

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons
The monarch butterfly. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

This column, That Nature Show, is about the nature right under your nose: in our backyards, playgrounds and parks! Stop and look around, you’ll be amazed at what surrounds you. 

The lovely orange-and-black monarch butterflies have begun their fall migration to Mexico. It takes them about two months.  They ride cold fronts, soaring on currents. As it does for birds, soaring saves the butterflies the energy they would expend flapping their wings.

They often traveling 20-30 miles per hour, covering 80 miles a day. Think about that. A flimsy little thing like a butterfly flies for two months straight with speed and intention. What excuse do you, a large strong mammal, have for not getting things done? Like, oh, for instance, not pressing your children’s school uniforms to a crease?

From Maryland they fly in pairs or small groups. Look for them. As they journey south the groups grow larger. One of the five so-called “Super Stops” for migrating monarchs is on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia. At Black Walnut Point on Tilghman Island, Maryland, the innkeepers at Black Walnut Inn have planted an acre of chrysanthemums to attract hundreds of monarch butterflies each fall. The butterflies need to refuel on nectar. Their favorite food is milkweed. And it is on milkweed that monarchs lay their eggs. You get the idea: milkweed is vitally important to the species for growing and reproducing.

Scientists believe that the population of migrating monarch butterflies are declining for several reasons.  There is a decline in milkweed due to the habitat destruction of suburban sprawl in the United States. In Mexico there is increased logging and deforestation. There is little untrammeled land for the butterflies. Extreme weather conditions are also to blame: last year’s severe heat and drought, for instance.  The number of overwintering monarch butterflies in Mexico least year during the 2012-2013 season was the smallest ever recorded.  The World Wildlife Fund lists them as “near threatened.”

The numbers have not yet come in for this year’s migration. Stay tuned. You can even sign up to record this year’s sightings. It’s something novel to do after school besides field hockey, no? “Citizen scientist” might look good on a college application essay.

What can you do to help them? It’s easy. Plant milkweed. Spread the word.  Who doesn’t love to see a monarch butterfly flutter by in its Orioles colors on a sunny fall afternoon?



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