In a world dominated by schedules, meetings, and deadlines, the simpler things in life sometimes pass right by without so much as a second thought. We take for granted things such as maps and GPS units to get us where we need to go. Wouldn’t it be amazing to instinctively know how to reach a destination without ever having been there? What if maps did not exist and no one provided directions? This is how it must be for the magnificent monarch butterfly.
Year after year, these beautiful creatures make their phenomenal migration from north to south, and back again. Eastern North American monarchs fly south for the winter, traversing the United States and making their perilous journey to the oyamel fir forests in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. How these amazing butterflies have the ability to locate the same 11 to 12 mountain areas as generations before remains a scientific mystery. To aid in their journey, monarchs use air currents and thermals to help them reach their destination, which may be as far as 3,000 miles from the starting point. Research indicates that the monarch’s innate ability to follow the migration patterns are influenced by the magnetic pull of the earth, as well as the position of the sun, but a complete explanation is yet to be discovered.
While the eastern population of monarchs makes the journey to Mexico for the winter, the western population of North American monarchs follows a flight path leading to the overwintering destination on California’s Pacific Coast near Santa Cruz and San Diego. The microclimatic conditions of these coastal cities closely mimic the mountainous region of Mexico where eastern North American monarchs make their winter home. After arriving in California, western monarchs find a safe haven, roosting in the eucalyptus, Monterey pines, and Monterey Cypress trees. The mountains of the oyamel forest, as well as the coastal area of California, offer a perfect microclimate for the butterflies. The high elevation of the mountains and the cool coastal breeze from the Pacific Ocean provide an optimum temperature range for the monarchs to spend the cooler months. Tens of thousands of monarchs often cluster together on a single tree to keep each other warm as the cool night air sets in.
This great migration is what sets monarchs apart from the rest of the butterfly world. Although the journey south for overwintering is completed by a single butterfly, it takes three to four generations to migrate back north as the warmer weather arrives. With the arrival of longer days and warmer weather, the monarch breeds and then lays eggs. This begins the journey of a new generation of monarchs who will do their part in the circle of life as they head towards the northern United States and Canada.
The monarch’s sole food source as a caterpillar is the milkweed plant. Although over 100 species of milkweed grow in North America, only about 25% of them are main host plants for the monarch butterfly. Milkweed is a very adaptable plant and grows in a variety of climates, which is good for the monarch; however, with the increase in row crop planting as well as land development, milkweed availability for the caterpillars is rapidly decreasing. In addition, logging and deforestation of the oyamel forests of Mexico has led to considerable overwintering habitat destruction.
Because of habitat and food source loss, the North American monarch population has declined by more than 90 percent in the past two decades. In an effort to preserve the overwintering habitat, the Mexican Government created the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in 1986, to protect 62 square miles of oyamel forest for the overwintering monarchs. In 2000, the Reserve was expanded and now includes 217 square miles. Conservation efforts have rapidly expanded across the country as communities, school groups, and individuals with a passion for monarchs have stepped up to do their part and help these beautiful creatures maintain their place in the ecosystem.
Many groups and individuals have begun to plant milkweed in their backyards, along roadsides, and in fields across the country. Residents are encouraged to plant milkweed seeds and plants in an effort to provide food for monarch caterpillars as they mature into adult butterflies and begin their journey north. Butterfly Milkweed, Common Milkweed, and Green Antelopehorn Milkweed are a few of the species commonly found in the Nacogdoches area.
Citizens can also help the monarch butterfly population by dedicating a portion of their backyard to butterfly gardening. The adult monarchs require a considerable amount of energy as they journey northward; energy acquired from feeding on flowers such as salvia, lantana, butterfly bush, pentas, and verbena. These nectar-rich plants can be found at area nurseries and garden centers. Most flowering plants will need a considerable amount of sun, so if your yard is more on the shady side, plants such as Turk’s cap or lobelia are both outstanding selections that will bloom even with little sun.
As part of our commitment to the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge, we at the City of Nacogdoches would like to encourage everyone to join in and help the beautiful monarch butterfly. The Mayor’s Monarch Pledge is a collaborative conservation effort developed by the National Wildlife Foundation. Through this unique program, cities, towns, and rural communities are encouraged to come together with the common goal of preserving the monarch butterfly and its habitat by providing a food source for monarchs at multiple stages of their lifecycle. This program brings awareness so we can do our part to ensure that these beauties will be around for future generations to enjoy.