Humans and animals migrate, but there is an extraordinary story about the migration of fragile creatures that weigh less than a postage stamp but travel thousands of miles.

The great migration of monarch butterflies south in the fall and north in the spring is an amazing event.

Think of the distance these tiny, fragile creatures have to travel – 50 to 100 miles a day! Every day for a few weeks. On their journey south, monarchs travel a total of 2,000 to 3,000 miles.

It is interesting to note that the journey on the northern route requires several generations of monarchs, while in the south it is only one generation.

When I was in Carpinteria, California, I saw monarchs wintering in Goleta, incredible!

The migration of monarchs is fascinating and remarkable.

Where do monarch butterflies live?.

Monarch butterflies live in many countries around the world and are found in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and on many Pacific islands. They exist in two distinct populations in North America: west of the Rockies and east of the Rockies.

The western population of monarchs overwinters in California, while the eastern population flies to Mexico to spend the winter.

A swarm of monarch butterflies on trees in Goleta, California

Why monarch butterflies migrate

Because monarch butterflies cannot survive cold winters, they migrate to warmer climates.

They begin their southward journey in late summer/early fall and return north in late spring or early summer.

Flowers attract monarchs

Migration site of monarch butterflies

Western monarchs fly to the California coast and winter in pines, cypresses, and eucalyptus trees.

While the eastern monarchs fly further south from Mexico, to the Oyamel fir forests in the mountains of Michoacán and the state of Mexico, about 2 hours west of Mexico City.

Their journey is an extraordinary insect migration.

Monarchs migrate south from late August to October.

Monarchs Meet in Winter

Monarch butterfly in California

Monarch butterflies can be found around the coastal cities of California in Goleta (near Santa Barbara), Monterey, Pismo Beach, San Diego and Santa Cruz.

Unfortunately, the population of monarch butterflies that overwinter in California has declined significantly in recent years.

According to the U.S. National Park Service, there were fewer than 2,000 monarchs in California by 2020. Compared to 1980, when an estimated 4.5 million monarchs wintered on the California coast.

The decline is staggering, 99% fewer monarchs in 40 years.

Fortunately, the eastern population of monarch butterflies is doing better.

The number of California monarchs has declined in recent years

Monarch butterfly in Mexico

The place to see monarch butterflies in Mexico is on the border between Michoacán and the state of Mexico, in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. This UNESCO World Heritage Site protects monarch butterflies and their habitat.

Millions of butterflies overwinter in the mountainous region of Michoacan with eight monarch butterflies in the protected area of the Biosphere Reserve.

Watch this monarch video to experience a virtual visit to a monarch butterfly in Mexico.

How the monarch butterfly migrates

Scientists believe the sunlight lets the monarch butterfly know it’s time to migrate. And instinct is in the way monarch butterflies find their way during migration.

Monarch butterflies take three to four generations to reach Canada. But it only takes one generation of monarch butterflies to migrate to southern Mexico.

Why do monarchs only need one generation to fly south, but multiple generations to fly north?

Monarch butterflies born in Mexico live for 2 to 6 weeks. They begin their northward migration and lay eggs (up to 400) before dying. Female monarchs lay 1 to 2 eggs on each leaf they land on.

The next generations do the same, and the third or fourth generation comes to their summer homes in Canada or the United States.

At the end of the summer, a great generation was born. This super generation of monarchs lives for 6 to 9 months and migrates south in the fall.

Monarch butterflies take about two months to fly from Canada to Mexico.

Monarch butterflies have distinctive black-orange wings

What monarch butterflies eat

Butterflies feed on the nectar of flowering plants, including milkweed. Monarch butterflies are attracted to Agastache Ava, asters, Mexican sunflowers, zinnias, verbena, dwarf butterfly bushes, flasks, lupins and milkweed.

In the caterpillar stage they eat nothing but milkweed all day. They go from a quarter inch to two inches long in two weeks.

It is interesting to note that milkweed contains toxins that give the birds an unpleasant taste. This unpleasant taste is passed on to monarchs and helps protect them from predators.

The nymphal stage lasts about ten days, during which the caterpillar turns into a butterfly. Adult butterflies feed on the nectar of flowers.

Monarch butterflies feed on flower nectar

Monarch butterfly predators

Spiders, mice, praying mantises, fire ants and birds like orioles are monarch eaters.

Monarch butterflies develop defenses against predators thanks to toxins in milkweed.  Consumption of milkweed in the caterpillar stage makes their skin toxic to predators. Milkweed also tastes bad, which discourages birds and insects from eating it.

Can monarch butterflies survive the cold?

Cold temperatures can kill monarch butterflies. Butterflies need warm temperatures to fly. So they migrate before it gets too cold in the northern parts of the United States and parts of Canada.

Even in high winds and rain, monarchs cannot fly. In 2002, up to 250 million monarchs died in Mexico due to rain combined with low temperatures. About 80% of the monarchs did not survive any of the winter quarters in Mexico.

From a distance, monarchs resemble the leaves of a tree.

Facts about the migration of Monarch butterfly

1. Monarch butterflies migrate between 2,000 and 3,000 miles.

2. Migrating monarchs can fly up to 30 miles per hour.

3. Monarchs travel between 50 and 100 miles per day during their migration.

4. There are two monarchical populations: Western monarchs and eastern monarchs

5. Adult females have larger wing veins than males.

6. Newly hatched monarchs must wait until their wings are stiff before they can fly.

7. As the caterpillars grow larger, they shed their skin and develop a new one to match their size.

8. Bright colors warn predators that they are poisonous.

9. Adult monarchs swallow nectar through a straw-shaped tongue called a probiscis.

10. Monarch caterpillars feed on oxygen through holes in their bodies.

11. The antennae and legs of the butterflies allow them to smell the scent.

12. Eastern monarchs winter in the Oyamel (o-ya-mel) forest in Mexico.

13. Female monarch butterflies lead other butterflies into northern Mexico.

14. The sun indicates when the monarch butterflies should start their migration.

15. Instinctively, monarch butterflies find their way during migration.

16. It takes 3 to 4 generations of monarch butterflies to reach the north.

17. It only takes one generation of monarch butterflies to migrate south.

18. Western monarchs winter in California, while Eastern monarchs fly to Mexico.

Various flowering plants attract butterflies

You can help monarch butterflies by planting flowering plants adapted to butterflies.

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frequently asked questions

How do monarch butterflies migrate?

The monarch is the only butterfly known to migrate in both directions, just like birds. … Thanks to clues from the environment, monarchs know when it’s time to head south for the winter. Monarchs use a combination of air currents and heat to travel long distances. Some fly up to 3,000 miles to reach their wintering grounds!

Why do monarch butterflies migrate?

There are two obvious reasons for the migration of monarchs. In September and October it is too cold for them in most places where they live. … Other North American butterflies survive the winter as eggs or nymphs, but only the monarch butterfly is tall enough to survive the winter as an adult.

How many monarchs emigrate each year?

The monarchs begin their southward migration between September and October. Eastern and northeastern populations of up to 500,000 monarch butterflies migrate during this period. They migrate to southern Canada and the United States and winter in central Mexico.

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