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A Majestic Monarch

I can still remember when my kindergarten class raised monarch butterflies. We were all so excited to see the caterpillars and discover which had formed chrysalises. Anyone who participated in this rite of passage as a child must remember the day when the teacher announced we would take the butterfly “houses” outside - the monarchs would soon need to be set free! It’s a lovely childhood memory for me, and it may be when my love of nature began.

The monarch is the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration, like birds. Millions of monarchs make this round-trip journey. Monarchs in Eastern North America spend winter in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. Monarchs in Western North America spend winter in California. During their travels, they use the sun to stay on course, but they also have an internal compass to help them navigate on cloudy days. Monarchs only travel during the day and gather close together during the cool autumn evenings in roost sites.

In Maryland, we sometimes start seeing monarchs as early as April, although more often we see them emerge in late Summer. The female monarch butterfly lays between 300 and 500 eggs over a two- to five-week period. After a few days, the eggs hatch into caterpillars, who spend most of their time eating milkweed. The caterpillars eat their fill for about two weeks, and then they spin protective cases, known as a chrysalis. About a week or two later, they finish their metamorphosis and emerge as a butterfly. The distinctive colors of the monarch warn off predators. The toxins in the milkweed they eat help to protect monarchs by making them poisonous to predators who might try to eat them!

With their two sets of orange and black wings and a wingspan of three to four inches, the monarch is among the most easily recognizable butterflies, although we are not seeing them as often as we used to. Since the 1980s, Western monarchs have declined by an estimated 99% and Eastern monarchs have declined by an estimated 80%. In part, this decline is due to the use of pesticides which negatively affect beneficial insects like monarchs and other pollinators. The disappearance of milkweed is another major reason for the decline in the monarch’s population. Milkweed is the only place monarchs will lay their eggs and the only food monarch caterpillars eat. In addition, climate change threatens to disrupt the monarch butterfly’s annual migration pattern by affecting weather conditions in both wintering grounds and summer breeding grounds. On December 15, 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that listing the monarch as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act is warranted but precluded by higher priorities.

Every year, the Eastern monarch butterfly flies up to 3,000 miles from its breeding grounds in the US and Canada, all the way down to its hibernation grounds in central Mexico. These tiny creatures have the most highly evolved migratory pattern of any known species of their kind, but this unique phenomenon is under threat. Monarchs need places to reproduce and feed. However, herbicide use is decreasing the availability of their primary food source, the milkweed plant. Climate change is also impacting monarchs. Abnormal patterns of drought and rainfall in North America’s breeding sites may cause adult butterfly deaths and less plant food for caterpillars.

Monarch conservation projects are ongoing across North America. At Charlotte’s Quest, we’ve planted milkweed and nectar plants in our pollinator garden, and we garden organically to minimize our impact on monarchs and other pollinators. Many of our members are citizen scientists and help monitor monarchs in our area. The data collected is critical for developing conservation policies to protect monarchs.

What can you do to help Monarchs?

  • Become a citizen scientist and help monitor monarchs and other species by downloading the iNaturalist app.

  • Follow the monarch’s journey north from Mexico as documented by Dr. Ellen Sharp, Ms. Anna Moreno, Mr. Pato Moreno, and Ms. Estela Romero and add your own observations at Journey North.

  • If you have a garden, plant milkweed for monarchs. Different types of milkweed grow best in different regions so check out which type you’ll need to plant. If you do start seeing monarch butterflies, pay close attention to which plants they land on and which direction they fly; you may have milkweed nearby and you could have the chance to experience the full monarch lifecycle!

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