More About Monarchs –

Danaus plexippus

MONARCH (Mariposa monarca) – 3¼“-5” – uncommon spring-fall
Masses of adult Monarchs migrate each year, traveling thousands of miles to winter along the California coast and in central Mexico where millions roost together in trees.

Migration . . . on the road again!
Just like birds, many butterflies will relocate to avoid seasonal changes in the weather or to find new food sources. Most notable is the Monarch and its annual two-way migration. Some species “overwinter” as caterpillars, pupae or even as adults, but Monarchs cannot live through a cold winter. Travelling as much as 3,000 miles one-way, Monarchs from west of the Rocky Mountains spend the winter along the California coast while those from central North America spend the winter in roosts in the mountains of central Mexico in large colonies of millions of individuals. When spring comes, they head north again, successive generations journeying all the way back to where their “ancestors” started.

You can see Monarchs and more in the Tohono Chul Butterfly Garden, which also has a registered Monarch Waystation! As part of the being a Monarch Waystation we working in conjunction with the Southwest Monarch Study, whose mission is to identify and describe the migration and breeding patterns of monarch butterflies in the western United States, and to encourage monarch conservation. The study also aims to provide a meaningful research project for citizen scientists of all ages. See how the tagging process works here!

What Makes A Waystation?

Monarch Waystations are places that provide breeding habitats for monarch butterflies to reproduce, as well as fueling their migration. Many publications are available to create Monarch Waystations and butterfly gardens in the east. Locally adapted plant varieties vary in the southwest, as well as seasonal planting times. Monarchs have basic needs to keep in mind when you are creating a Monarch Waystation or butterfly garden.

They are:

  • Host Plants – also called larval plants—are annuals or perennials where butterflies lay their eggs. As the tiny caterpillars hatch from the eggs they will consume the leaves and often the flowers as food. While hungry caterpillars can quickly defoliate a plant, new leaves quickly grow afterwards. You can enjoy watching the entire life span of butterflies in your yard by including host plants. Plus more butterflies will often linger in your yard looking for a mate or to find just the right place to lay their eggs. To qualify as a Monarch Waystation, plant at least ten milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) and include other host plants to draw a variety of other butterflies to your garden.
  • Nectar Plants – All butterflies need nectar to sustain their adult life but not all flowers are created equal. Butterflies have favorites and they can vary by the season, but butterflies will visit them in the spring, but late summer and fall are the premier seasons. To attract a wide variety of visitors, make sure there are flowering plants in your garden throughout the entire butterfly season. Clusters of several plants are most effective and visible to flying butterflies.
  • Shelter – Butterflies need trees or large shrubs for protection from the wind and heat of the day as well as a place spend the night. When the weather is favorable, look for them on the southeast side of trees and tall bushes warming in the rising sun.
  • Moisture – In dry conditions (low humidity and low rainfall), monarchs may benefit from supplemental moisture. This can be as simple as irrigating deeply when they are present. You may see monarchs sipping from morning dew or moisture on leaves or puddling on damp ground.

Here at Tohono Chul we monitor the nectar plants in the Monarch Waystation, where we tag butterflies and monitor Monarch caterpillars. Our experience with Monarchs is leading us to learn more about the diversity and complexity of “stable”, “balanced” plant communities and the insects that inhabit them, so we can better advise people wanting to create butterfly gardens of their own.

They are insects, and like many insects, don’t begin life as the beautiful, winged creatures we admire, but start out as wriggly caterpillars. Over the course of several weeks, caterpillars spend all their time eating leaves and flowers, shedding their skins as they grow bigger. When the time is right, they begin the process of metamorphosis, turning that final shed skin into a pupa, or chrysalis, where they continue the transformation process, emerging weeks, or even months, later as an adult butterfly. Most adults live only a short time, just long enough to lay eggs for the next generation.

More in depth information about Monarch Waystations is available on the Southwest Monarch Study’s website here!

Tagging 101  –

  • Step 1 – Identifying Monarchs: If you have a school or home garden, look for broad, flat flower heads. These provide stable landing pads for butterflies. Sunflowers, tithonia, milkweeds, thistles, lantana, mints and verbena are usually popular with butterflies. They also love rabbitbrush and desert broom during the migration. Monarchs are opportunists, so be sure to check all flowering plants. The best time of day to find monarch butterflies is in the morning and the late afternoon on sunny days. Monarchs are sun-powered and favor temperatures above 55 degrees. Calm or light winds are best.
  • Step 2 – Catching Monarchs: It’s exciting to tag a monarch for the first time. When you see one, think for a moment of the best way to catch it. Chasing a butterfly with a net and swinging wildly at it usually doesn’t work! Instead, move slowly (moving fast can scare it away). Monarchs can’t see backwards, so sneak up behind it. Try to put your net underneath the butterfly. In a fast sweeping movement, move your net upward to catch the butterfly, then quickly flip your net over so that the opening is now facing down. If you have flipped quickly enough, the net will fold over, trapping the butterfly in the end of the net.
  • Step 3 – Handling Monarchs: Place the opening of the net flat on the ground and slide your hand under the hoop and into the net. Gently trap the butterfly in the net so that its wings are folded (as opposed to open). Grasp the leading edge of the folded front wings between the thumb and forefinger and carefully remove the butterfly from the net. Remember, the butterfly’s wings are covered with powdery scales. If too many are rubbed off, it could affect its ability to fly.
  • Step 4 – Tagging Monarchs – As you hold the butterfly, have a partner record the requested information on the SWMS datasheet. Next, have your partner remove a tag from the tag sheet and carefully apply it to the discal cell on the hindwing of the butterfly. (See photo) Press the tag and wing gently between your thumb and finger to force the adhesive through the scales onto the wing. Be sure to record the tag number on the data sheet! After you double check that you have recorded all the necessary information and you are comfortable that the tag is secure on the monarch, place it on the same plant or a similar one where you originally found it. The monarch may fly off immediately or rest for a few moments before continuing on its way.

Please visit Southwest Monarch Study’s website for a plethora of Monarch Butterfly information!