The Majestic Monarch
The Monarch Butterfly, with its large orange wings, striking black veins, and white-dotted edges, is one of the most recognizable butterflies in North America. Monarchs are not only known for their beauty, but are also known for their amazing migration and overwintering behavior.
Monarch butterfly. Photo Credit: USFWS
Monarchs migrate from parts of Canada and the eastern U.S. to spend winter in the mountains of central Mexico. A smaller group of monarchs migrate from areas in the western U.S. and overwinter along the coasts of California.
For monarchs that migrate to Mexico, the journey can span more than 3,000 miles! This epic journey is not completed by one monarch but is accomplished through a series of generations. After spending their winter in Mexico, adult monarchs will venture north, mate, and lay eggs. The offspring of this generation, considered generation one, will continue the journey north. The next two generations of monarchs fly north to breeding grounds; it is the fourth generation, also known as the super-generation, that makes the journey to Mexico to overwinter.
Monarch butterfly migration map. Photo credit: Paul Mirocha and monarchwatch.org
The monarchs’ arrival to their wintering homes in Mexico and along the California coast in November coincides with El Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, a holiday to remember and honor loved ones who have passed away. The miracle migration and arrival of the monarchs symbolizes the spiritual journey of the souls who have returned to Earth to celebrate with their family and friends. This connection between spirituality and the monarchs’ annual return is a tradition that has spanned centuries.
How do the monarchs know where they are going you may ask? Recent research has found that monarchs use an internal magnetic compass to follow the Earth’s magnetic field to make their annual migration. Along their journey, monarch butterflies will feed on nectar and pollinate many types of wildflowers. As pollinators, they help to maintain the health and beauty of many ecosystems. Although monarchs are well-known, admired, and loved, they face an uncertain future. The monarch population has decreased significantly due to habitat loss, pesticides, and intensified weather due to climate change.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is a leading partner in The Monarch Joint Venture Plan - a partnership of various organizations that work together to protect monarch migration across North America. USFWS integrates monarch conservation and educational programs at wildlife refuges across the nation. Locally, the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge supports monarch migration with our Butterfly Garden which serves as a way station for monarchs. Our Butterfly Garden is also a space to teach students and visitors about the importance of protecting monarch habitat. Through restoration projects our volunteers help to remove invasive plants and plant natives such as Milkweed - an essential plant that monarchs depend on to lay their eggs on and that developing caterpillars feed on.
The monarch is a fascinating species that is sadly disappearing. YOU can help this iconic butterfly by planting Milkweed and native plants around your home to provide essential habitat for the majestic monarch. To learn more about monarchs and how you can help them please visit the websites listed below.
Watershed Watchers website for Gardeners: http://www.mywatershedwatch.org/resources/for-gardeners/
How to build a pollinator garden: https://www.fws.gov/midwest/news/PollinatorGarden.html
The Monarch Joint Venture website: https://monarchjointventure.org/
Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper website: https://www.monarchmilkweedmapper.org/
“The Monarch Butterfly is in trouble” - USFWS; https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/
“The Monarch Butterfly Story” - USFWS; https://www.fws.gov/cno/es/Monarch/Monarch.cfm
“Annual Life Cycle” - The Monarch Joint Venture; https://monarchjointventure.org/monarch-biology/annual-life-cycle
“A magnetic compass aids monarch butterfly migration” - P. Guerra, R. Gegear and S. Reppert; https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms5164
“Dia de los Monarchs” - National Park Service; https://www.nps.gov/articles/dias-de-los-monarchs.htm
“El dia de los Muertos Celebration Connects kids to Culture and Monarch Conservation” - Ashley Spratt, USFWS Public Affairs Officer; https://www.fws.gov/news/blog/index.cfm/2016/11/1/El-Dia-de-los-Muertos-...