Monarch butterflies are beautiful and they have a complex and interesting life cycle. In February and March, monarchs come out of hibernation, find mates, and and fly north to find plants where they can lay their eggs.
Monarchs lay their eggs only on milkweed. Monarchs follow the milkweed north as it appears in spring and summer. They lay their eggs on milkweed because this is what their babies can eat.
The eggs hatch, the larvae eat the milkweed, and then each monarch caterpillar creates a chrysalis. They hatch out as butterflies and stay in the north for two generations, living just long enough to lay new eggs on the milkweed.
In September and October a new bunch of monarch larvae will be born, but this generation will migrate to warmer climates in Southern California and in Mexico — sometimes traveling for thousands of miles! There they will hibernate… just as their great-grandparents did. When they come out of hibernation, they begin the trek back to their northern homes for the summer.
No other butterfly takes on this kind of epic migration.
Monarch butterfly populations in North America are threatened. In 1996, the monarchs covered 45 acres in the winter; last year, World Wildlife Fund reported monarchs on just 1.7 acres.
The reason? The decline of milkweed. Millions of acres of grassland have been plowed under for plantings of corn and soybeans for biofuels and animal feed. At the same time, these crops have been bred to withstand weed killer, so entire fields are doused with weed killer… which naturally kills milkweed.
Milkweed is not harmful to corn, and it usually grows along the edges of farms, adding attractive color while it provides a habitat for the monarch. However, it is efficient to spray fields of crops with herbicide, so the milkweed must go.
One solution is to plant milkweed in other places. Milkweed is pretty and it can be part of a butterfly garden designed to bring beauty to your home or public planting in the form not only of colorful flowers, but also of beautiful monarch butterflies. Buy milkweed seed, or choose a wildflower mix containing the best selection of seeds for a beautiful Butterfly Garden.
Here are some important links:
- Monarch Watch is a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing back the monarch butterfly. You’ll find us on their milkweed vendor list.
- Journey North is a resource for citizen scientists who can help track the monarchs.
- The Monarch Program is an educational organization which conducts research, including monitoring monarch roosting sites.