An annual event that can cover thousands of miles
By Sue Baldani
The Monarch butterfly is a joy to behold. With its graceful fluttering and vibrant orange and black wings, it’s also easy to identify. Summer just wouldn’t be the same without these colorful creatures.
Once cooler temperatures arrive, it’s time for them to begin a very long journey to their winter destinations. The unique and amazing phenomenon of the annual migration of the North American Monarch butterfly has yet to be fully understood by scientists. We know that these butterflies, which are the only ones that migrate, need warmer temperatures in order to conserve fat reserves and survive, but how do they know when it’s time to first head north and then later move south towards warmer climes?
Where they are living determines where they migrate for overwintering. Those to the west of the Rockies will head to the Pacific Coast near San Diego and Santa Cruz, while those living to the east will head to Mexico. The Eastern variety will use several flyways, and then converge together into a single one-lane highway over Central Texas. And, somehow, they find their destinations without any trouble.
These lightweight beauties, weighing less than a gram, may fly as far as 3,000 miles (often clocking 50 to 100 miles per day) to reach their winter homes. On the way, they’ll meet up with other Monarchs and at night, huddle together in trees, sometimes in the tens of thousands, to stay warm and cozy.
Once back in warmer temperatures, these long-distance travelers will breed and lay the eggs of the new generation. When ready, it is this new generation that starts the journey back to North America.
During their stay here, we can help Monarchs and other butterflies flourish by planting a butterfly garden. Choose a nice sunny spot that is somewhat sheltered from the wind, if possible, and plant nectar-rich native flowers and plants (see sidebar). Besides plants, also include some nice big rocks; butterflies love a nice warm place to land. Fresh water is also appreciated. Fill a shallow container and include some sand so they have a place to perch while drinking. A small shrub is also welcome as a place to cool off on a hot day and to settle down in the evenings.
If you would like to learn more about this amazing migration and Monarch butterflies in general, the Topeka Zoo can help. Its Monarch Butterfly Education classes are held in September at the Kansas Museum of History and taught by zoo educators. For more information, go to https://topekazoo.org/education/education-programs/monarch-butterfly-classes/.
[Sidebar:] Butterfly Garden Plants and Flowers:
Milkweed, parsley and dill (for the larvae)
For more varieties, go to http://www.kansasnativeplants.com/butterfly.php.
Written for Topeka Lifestyle magazine in Kansas.