Monarch Butterfly Migration

In the dim recesses of my memory I am standing on the baseball diamond of my southern California elementary school as the monarch butterfly migration flutters by. Hundreds of butterflies surrounded us.

member of monarch butterfly migration
The fall monarch butterfly migration brings butterflies to the area to lay eggs on the remaining milkweed plants and drink nectar from the wildflowers before flying further south.

Back then no one taught much science in school. Ecology wasn’t a familiar word. DDT was popular.

Yet the wonder of these beautiful orange and black butterflies stopped our gym class game. Even the most nature unaware students stood in awe.

monarch butterfly caterpillar
Monarch butterfly caterpillars eat a lot of milkweed leaves and grow quickly. Even the seed pods are considered food. This one at about five inches long is ready to find a place to form a pupa.

The monarch butterfly migration is moving through the Ozarks now. Those clouds of butterflies have dwindled to one or two a day. And I’ve seen more this year than for several years.

Monarch butterfly pupa
A Monarch butterfly pupa is a little over an inch long and half as wide. It is a delicate green. It hangs in a sheltered place to a couple of weeks as the caterpillar inside becomes a butterfly.

Monarch butterflies are the species shown in science texts as they cycle from egg to caterpillar to pupa to adult. One year we got to watch this for real on the milkweed plants growing around our house and barn.

The adults fly south laying eggs as they go. These adults don’t make it to Mexico. Instead the new generation continues the flight south. A final group makes the last leg of the journey to hibernate.

Monarch butterfly pupa ready to hatch
A day or so before hatching the monarch butterfly pupa becomes transparent allowing the colors of the wing to show through.

The monarch butterfly migration is dwindling as those milkweed patches they rely on disappear. Farmers spray their fields and the herbicides drift into ditch rows. Ranchers spray wetlands to increase their pastures. Road crews mow them down. Even conservation department crews mow them down.

Monarch butterfly emerging from pupa
The new Monarch butterfly pulls out of the pupa and hangs on it as its wings expand. This can take an hour or more.

People are urged to plant milkweeds. Butterfly weed or purple milkweed are probably the best garden varieties. Common milkweed is spectacular, but it’s tall and tends to spread. Swamp milkweed needs moisture.

There are many other kinds of milkweeds. Most of these are much smaller and their flowers are not as showy. Some require special conditions. Others don’t.

new member of the monarch butterfly migration
Once the new monarch butterfly’s wings are expanded and dry, the butterfly walks carefully off the pupa case to someplace solid. The butterfly launches and flies off a short distance to continue fanning its wings to make sure they are dry and ready to fly. It then flutters off to find some flowers before joining monarch butterfly migration south.

Seeing a monarch butterfly migration was a wonderful experience. Our common milkweed and butterfly weed plants are one way to help such sights happen again.

Find out about Missouri’s milkweeds in Dr. Rintz’ “Missouri Milkweeds, Milkvines and Pipevines“.