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Monarch Butterfly Migration

Updated on March 16, 2015

The Migration of Monarch Butterflies

Monarch butterflies roosting overnight in a cedar tree in rural McLean Cty, IL
Monarch butterflies roosting overnight in a cedar tree in rural McLean Cty, IL | Source

The yearly autumn mass migration of the North American Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus), starting in September and October of each year, is a truly amazing phenomenon!

Did you know that the Monarch Butterflies of North America can migrate up to 3000 miles? It's hard to imagine that something as delicate-looking as a butterfly can travel that far, but some North American monarchs migrate very long distances, as far as from Canada to Central Mexico.

Monarchs are one of the most widely recognized butterflies in North America, but they can also be found in South America, parts of Australia and New Zealand, and occasionally in a few areas of Europe. Only the North American monarch butterfly migrates any great distance.

In fact, the migration of the monarch butterfly is the largest and longest migration of any North American insect. But the individuals who migrate south for the winter only make this trip once. The group of monarchs that fly south the next year are the fourth generation after the previous year's migration.

Monarch butterfly
Monarch butterfly

Why Do Monarchs Migrate?

Monarchs Migrate South to Escape the Cold, and North to Find Food

Monarch butterflies and their larvae (caterpillars) and pupae (chrysalises) can't live through the cold winters of northern climates, and need to travel south for the monarch population to survive. In other butterfly and insect species, the larvae and the pupae, and in some cases the adults, can overwinter in the colder climates, so there's no need for them to migrate.

Monarchs in other parts of the world don't migrate, or just migrate for short distances because their populations live in areas where winters aren't as severe.

So why don't the North American monarchs just stay south then, if they can't survive the colder northern winters? Because monarch larvae (caterpillars) can only feed on milkweed plants which don't grow in the areas where the adults overwinter. The adults have to fly north again to lay their eggs where milkweed is plentiful.

There's a theory that the North American population of monarch butterflies didn't migrate these long distance until sometime after 1865. In the article The Biogeography of the Monarch Butterfly, the author says that when European colonists to North America destroyed much of the forested areas of the mid-continent, the opportunistic milkweed plant species expand north into these deforested areas. Monarchs followed the northward expansion of the milkweed, but only the populations that moved back south again for the winter managed to survive.

Monarch photo from ButterflyPictures.net

Where Do Monarchs Spend the Winter?

Wintering Monarchs in California
Wintering Monarchs in California | Source

North American Monarchs Migrate to One of Two Areas

1. Southern coast of California - Those that live west of the Rockies migrate to the southern coast of California near Santa Cruz and San Diego. Here the monarchs roost in eucalyptus trees and Monterey pines and Monterey cypresses.

2. Central Mexico - Up to three hundred million monarch butterflies that live east of the Rockies in Canada and in the United States fly to Mexico each year, funnel down through Texas to a small area in the mountains of Central Mexico. They roost in Oyamel fir forests at an elevation of about 2 miles above sea level.

In both California and in Mexico, the monarchs gather in dense clusters to stay warm. Many thousands of butterflies can roost on one Oyamel fir tree!

In 1986, the Mexican government created the Mariposa Monarca (Monarch Butterfly) Biosphere Reserve to protect the habitat where the monarchs overwinter. Currently this reserve covers over 200 square miles.

Excellent Video - Monarch Butterfly Amazing Migration

Maps and Updates of Monarch Migrations

Read weekly updates at Monarch Butterfly: Journey. This page is updated each Thursday during the spring and fall migrations.

You can also find different maps that show monarch sightings including the peak sightings, monarch egg and larva sightings, and where they're seen roosting.

Each map shows different colors for sightings during subsequent weeks, so you can see the progression throughout the spring.

Monarch Fall Migration Route
Monarch Fall Migration Route

Monarch Fall Migration Routes

This map from MonarchWatch shows the fall migration pathways of the Monarch butterfly to both locations: Mexico and the southern coast of California. Click on the map to go to the larger map on MonarchWatch.

Yearly migration behavior

1. August - September. Most of the monarchs live in the mid-central US

2. September - November migration south

3. March -- Some start north

4. More travel in April and June

5. End of migration to the northern-most points in June and July

Did You Know....?

Monarch butterflies can travel between 50 - 100 miles a day. They may take up to two months to complete their journey south.

Monarch caterpillar
Monarch caterpillar | Source

Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle

The North American Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle goes through four generations each year.

The population that overwinters in Mexico and California starts to mate and then head north in February and March to find milkweed plants to lay their eggs (Generation 1 of the new year). The eggs hatch into caterpillars after about four days, and the caterpillars eat milkweed and grow larger.

After two weeks, the caterpillars transform into chrysalises. After another 10 days the adult monarch butterfly emerges from the chrysalis.

This adult lives only from 2 - 6 weeks, and dies after laying the eggs for Generation 2. Generations 2 and 3 follow the same pattern, perhaps flying a little further north, laying eggs for the next generation, then dying.

Generation 4 is born in August and September, and instead of laying eggs, they migrate south and overwinter in California or Mexico. They may live six to eight months, until its time to lay eggs for Generation 1 of the next year.

Go to The King of Butterflies -- The Monarch Butterfly to see a series of beautiful photos of the different stages in the monarch life cycle. (Check out especially the chrysalis -- it looks like a jade with gold ornament!)

Monarchs Overwintering in Mexico

Monarchs Overwintering in Mexico
Monarchs Overwintering in Mexico | Source
Monarch Butterfly With Tracking Tag
Monarch Butterfly With Tracking Tag | Source

Monarch Watch Tagging Program

The Monarch Watch tagging program was developed as a way to study the pathways that monarchs east of the Rockies take as they migrate south. People who find a tagged monarch are requested to email or call to report when and where they found it. The small tag includes the website and phone number along with the ID number.

Of course not many people are aware of this program! Still, a small percentage of tagged monarchs are caught and reported each year, en route to Mexico, or in Mexico.

Volunteers of the tagging program are instructed how to safely catch and place small tags on monarchs. They record the ID number on the tag, and when and where the monarch was tagged. They send this information back to Monarch Watch.

Read Tagging Monarch Butterflies (on Glorious-Butterfly.com) for one volunteer's experience in catching and tagging butterflies for the Monarch Butterfly Tagging Program.

As a way to encourage more data collection from tagged butterflies in Mexico, the local farmers are paid $5 for each tagged butterfly that they report.

The Long Journey Home - Video

How do monarchs know where to go? How do we determine their routes?

More information about the Monarch Watch Program.

It's Still a Mystery....

We don't really know how monarchs know where to go in the winter. They often roost in the same trees that the previous year's migrants visited.

Source

Have You Been Seeing Migrating Monarch Butterflies? - Where do you see Monarch Butterflies?

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    • profile image

      BeyondRoses 

      5 years ago

      How fascinating, and I have wondered where butterflies go. Splendid photos of the Monarch Butterflies!

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      Lovely lens. So colorful!

    • LynetteBell profile image

      LynetteBell 

      5 years ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

      Great work. They are beautiful butterflies.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      Amazing lense m8. Keep up the good work...

    • Jogalog profile image

      Jogalog 

      5 years ago

      They're really beautiful and I had no idea butterflies migrated - I don't know what I thought happened to them in winter!

    • profile image

      AnindaPramanik 

      5 years ago

      Beautiful

    • manutara69 profile image

      manutara69 

      5 years ago

      Wonderful lens. I learned a lot. Thank you.

    • darciefrench lm profile image

      darciefrench lm 

      5 years ago

      What a beautiful article about a magnificent creature

    • Nanciajohnson profile image

      Nancy Johnson 

      5 years ago from Mesa, Arizona

      I love these butterflies. So amazing is their journey. I enjoyed reading your lens.

    • KarenHC profile imageAUTHOR

      Karen 

      5 years ago from U.S.

      @TeacherSerenia: Great story :-) Thanks!

    • TeacherSerenia profile image

      TeacherSerenia 

      5 years ago

      When my son was 4, he spotted a monarch butterfly and called for me to come see it. "Look mommy, automatic butterfly"

      Have never forgotten that!!!

      I have always loved Monarch Butterflies. Great lens!!!!

    • Alessandro Zambon profile image

      Alessandro Zamboni 

      5 years ago from Italy

      Being always passionated about butterflies and insects, like my family was, the Monarch butterflies migration is one of the curious and incredible events that happen each and every year. It's phenomenal to see so delicate butterflies to fly no less than 50/100 miles a day. Incredible!

    • profile image

      davecurrtis 

      5 years ago

      This is so amazing, wish I could see one.

    • csk305 profile image

      csk305 

      5 years ago

      Absolutely great presentation and so much interesting information. I totally enjoyed reading this. Thank you!

    • floppypoppygift1 profile image

      floppypoppygift1 

      5 years ago

      I lived in Santa Cruz , CA as a kid and we used to go to Natural Bridges State Park to see them. Great info about the migration study- I did not know about that! Thanks! Cheers~cb

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      I haven't seen them migrating, I live in South Florida, but I did see a Monarch butterfly on my Silky Gold milkweed today (10-10-12). Hopefully it feasted on the nectar in the flowers and laid a few eggs on the leaves.

    • Gypzeerose profile image

      Rose Jones 

      5 years ago

      So beautiful - you made my day sweeter!

    • KarenHC profile imageAUTHOR

      Karen 

      5 years ago from U.S.

      @HealthfulMD: Thanks :-) I'd love to follow them south some year!

    • HealthfulMD profile image

      Kirsti A. Dyer 

      5 years ago from Northern California

      I had a chance to see them many years ago in Santa Barbara. Leaving some blessings for the butterflies.

    • KarenHC profile imageAUTHOR

      Karen 

      5 years ago from U.S.

      @ikepius: That's an interesting insight worth considering, ikepius!

    • profile image

      ikepius 

      5 years ago

      @MintySea: I think mating is what reduces life expectancy. That happens a lot in the animal kingdom.

    • profile image

      ikepius 

      5 years ago

      This is a very insightful lens. A sure hit! Thanks for sharing.

    • radhanathswamifan profile image

      radhanathswamifan 

      5 years ago

      colourful lens:)

    • profile image

      MintySea 

      5 years ago

      wow I didn't know that time of year born determined life expectancy

    • profile image

      cassieann 

      5 years ago

      Nice. I love the photo of the Monarch butterflies wintering in Mexico.

    • Mickie Gee profile image

      Mickie Goad 

      5 years ago

      Every autumn I look for the migrating monarchs. I was surprised to see that Alabama and the Florida panhandle were not noted on the map above. It is so interesting to see that these butterflies fly the same path and it is fascinating to see them reappear every year.

    • KarenHC profile imageAUTHOR

      Karen 

      5 years ago from U.S.

      @sheriangell: And it's just the monarchs that migrate, but only in North America. I've read that some monarch butterflies live in other parts of the world, but they don't migrate, at least not for such long distances.

    • sheriangell profile image

      sheriangell 

      5 years ago

      It never occurred to me that butterflies migrate. How informative and your lens is gorgeous. Squid Angel blessed today!

    • peachplanet profile image

      peachplanet 

      5 years ago

      wow! Very nice information and beautiful presentation.

    • profile image

      SkiLoverAlpine 

      5 years ago

      Wow. There's so much about butterflies that I didn't know.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      i don't know that butterfly could sing such nice songs

    • ismeedee profile image

      ismeedee 

      5 years ago

      Such beautiful creatures; you've done them proud here!

    • flinnie lm profile image

      Gloria Freeman 

      5 years ago from Alabama USA

      Hi this is a great post on migrating Monarch Butterflies. I enjoyed reading it, thanks for sharing. Blessing and added to my lens...Squid Angel flinnie.

    • Essentially Ind profile image

      Essentially Ind 

      5 years ago

      wow so lovely and beautiful LENS........:)

    • Rosaquid profile image

      Rosaquid 

      5 years ago

      Thanks for sharing this. How those delicate-looking creatures travel so far and remain so fresh is miraculous. I certainly would not feel or look at all fresh after such a journey. It is painful to think of their habitat shrinking.

    • Shoputopian profile image

      Karnel 

      5 years ago from Lower Mainland of BC

      I think the Monarch butterfly is just beautiful as is your lens. Congrats on the front page exposure. Blessed!

    • Radcliff LM profile image

      Radcliff LM 

      5 years ago

      It's amazing how their lives are so short, yet they travel so far. Beautiful lens!

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 

      5 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      No, I haven't but would love to! I didn't realize monarchs lived long enough to migrate 2 months. Fascinating!

    • KarenHC profile imageAUTHOR

      Karen 

      5 years ago from U.S.

      @SheilaSchnauzies: Thanks for your visit and your blessing :-) We let some milkweed grow along our driveway for the monarch butterflies too!

    • SheilaSchnauzies profile image

      Sheila 

      5 years ago from Omaha, NE

      Fascinating lens, about my favorite butterfly! I'm always thrilled when they are here visiting. I like to grow milkweed for them when I can. Congrats on your front page honors! Blessed!

    • KarenHC profile imageAUTHOR

      Karen 

      5 years ago from U.S.

      @anonymous: That's got to be fun to see so many at a time! Here in Michigan, I just see one at a time while they're here for the summer. We haven't seen as many this summer as in some years.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      I have been seeing monarchs on my butterfly bush for weeks now in Greenville, SC. Up to five at a time. It is amazing that they live long enough to fly so far!

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 

      5 years ago from Canada

      The monarch is such a beautiful butterfly but I have not seen too many this year. I wonder if it is because of the cool rainy spring?

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      I saw a large adult today in Allen TX. 07/29/12.

    • artbyrodriguez profile image

      Beverly Rodriguez 

      6 years ago from Albany New York

      Fascinating! Beautiful lens.

    • wedpittsburgh lm profile image

      wedpittsburgh lm 

      6 years ago

      Great lens! I just watched a program on just this subject. They truly are beautiful and majestic creatures!

    • profile image

      Auntie-M LM 

      6 years ago

      I adore monarchs. I saw a Nature special about monarchs that showed they had a very unusual migration pattern reaching over several generations before returning home. It didn't say if it was just one group of monarchs that do that, or all of them, but it was intriguing. Blessed!

    • jaclinart lm profile image

      jaclinart lm 

      6 years ago

      What a fascinating lens. Thanks for sharing this.

    • dave-sutton profile image

      dave-sutton 

      6 years ago

      I love this particular butterfly and have made a few animations of it.

    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 

      6 years ago from Southampton, UK

      Butterflies are pretty amazing aren't they. I have no idea how they can migrate thousands of miles like that. Great information and pictures.

    • profile image

      livingfrontiers 

      6 years ago

      Amazing lens on migrations...they are a good way to feel how our lives have stayed the same, despite many changes. Hopefully the changes will not continue to impact these beautiful creatures!

    • flicker lm profile image

      flicker lm 

      6 years ago

      Nicely done! My garden is near a milkweed patch and I've sometimes seen Monarch caterpillars in my garden. They seem to like my parsley! I've got plenty of it and they're welcome to it.

    • tvyps profile image

      Teri Villars 

      6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Happy "Learn about Butterflies Day." Beautiful photos and great info! Squid Angel blessed!

    • Mary Crowther profile image

      Mary Crowther 

      6 years ago from Havre de Grace

      I enjoyed this lens, so interesting!

    • BLouw profile image

      Barbara Walton 

      6 years ago from France

      Amazing story and a beautiful lens.

    • Steve Dizmon profile image

      Steve Dizmon 

      6 years ago from Nashville, TN

      I like to see the Monarchs passing through. Enjoyed the lens.

    • flycatcherrr profile image

      flycatcherrr 

      6 years ago

      The Monarch migration is both a mystery and a wonder. I'd love to go south to see the masses of Monarch butterflies gather, but I do worry about their ultimate survival, with all we humans do to nature in our blind ignorance - so glad to learn about the tagging program. *blessed*

    • profile image

      AngryBaker 

      6 years ago

      I got to see the Monarchs in Pacific Grove this last December... AMAZING!

    • Einar A profile image

      Einar A 

      6 years ago

      Beautiful and informative lens!

    • Hypersapien2 profile image

      Hypersapien2 

      6 years ago from U.S.

      This is stuff I hadn't though tabout in years, but great info. I always enjoy profiles of the insect and animal kingdoms.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      Hi, great lens. when i was a kid I loved to play with the fuzzy caterpillars. I came into the house once with them in my hair and my pockets....Ehrin

    • BuddyBink profile image

      BuddyBink 

      6 years ago

      Very interesting. I knew about the migration but I did not realize it was a four generation cycle. Thanks.

    • GaelicForge profile image

      GaelicForge 

      6 years ago

      There's a grove of trees in Pismo Beach where these little critters migrate to. It's an awesome experience to see them clustered in the trees.

    • profile image

      megabu717 

      6 years ago

      Lots of interesting details on Monarch Butterfly. Amazing and beautiful creatures. Thanks.

    • Burningwoodarts profile image

      Burningwoodarts 

      6 years ago

      Very informative lense. I had no idea there was more than one generation of these beautiful creatures in one year.

    • emmaklarkins profile image

      emmaklarkins 

      6 years ago

      This is really amazing! I've enjoyed learning a bit more about these wonderful butterflies.

    • LiteraryMind profile image

      Ellen Gregory 

      6 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Very interesting. I wish there were more of them in the Northeast. I have a butterfly garden and keep meaning to plant milkweed. I think this gave me the push I need.

    • TheHealthCabin profile image

      TheHealthCabin 

      6 years ago

      3000 miles? Wow...amazing. Great lens, Thank you.

    • KarenHC profile imageAUTHOR

      Karen 

      6 years ago from U.S.

      @ecogranny: Thanks, Grace, for the Squid blessing :-) I'd love to see the monarchs when they winter over in Santa Cruz. What a sight!

    • KarenHC profile imageAUTHOR

      Karen 

      6 years ago from U.S.

      @seosmm: Thanks so much. Yes, monarchs are really beautiful!

    • KarenHC profile imageAUTHOR

      Karen 

      6 years ago from U.S.

      @anonymous: I'm glad you enjoyed reading this. Yes, the animated monarch butterfly is lovely, isn't it :-)

    • KarenHC profile imageAUTHOR

      Karen 

      6 years ago from U.S.

      @M Schaut: I hope we're not losing the monarchs either. I know that occasionally their population is greatly diminished by weather, or by loss of their necessary habitat. I hope they come back to your area.

    • KarenHC profile imageAUTHOR

      Karen 

      6 years ago from U.S.

      @BunnyFabulous: I'm glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for the comment.

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      The butterflies are an amazing site in Santa Cruz, California. We got to see them one sunny New Year's Day years ago. They completely covered the eucalyptus trees at Natural Bridges State Park. As the sun warmed them, they would lift from the trees and float magically about us. Hundreds of human watchers stood watching silently and in awe, mouths agape, eyes wide with wonder. Love lens. Blessed.

    • profile image

      seosmm 

      6 years ago

      Such beautiful creatures. Nice lens!

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      So pretty to read. Found it very relaxing. Love the animated butterfly.

    • M Schaut profile image

      Margaret Schaut 

      6 years ago from Detroit

      The peninsula where I live is annually the summer resting spot/ home for monarchs every year. This past year, however, VERY VERY FEW came. It is truly disturbing. They're wonderful and beautiful creatures. I hope we're not losing them!

    • BunnyFabulous profile image

      BunnyFabulous 

      6 years ago from Central Florida

      So cool! I love seeing monarchs, and I'll be checking in on their migration on your lens this year. Great lens!

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      Returning with a Monarch blessing on this gorgeous presentation on these jewels of the air.

    • CNelson01 profile image

      Chuck Nelson 

      6 years ago from California

      Nice lens...amazing creatures.

    • profile image

      HERBMASTER 

      6 years ago

      So beautiful!

    • KarenTBTEN profile image

      KarenTBTEN 

      6 years ago

      There's a lot I didn't know there. It's kind of mind boggling that the 4th generation lives so much longer, and has such a different life task.

    • profile image

      JoshK47 

      6 years ago

      I've never seen them migrate, I've just seen a few flutter by here and there. Great lens.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      had no idea about anything on this topic, glad I browsed upon it this morning! If you haven't browsed my really educational lens, I think you'll like 'em.

    • bechand profile image

      bechand 

      6 years ago

      I remembered this page from either lens of the day or a sunshine award ... I love it - my son is starting school with Butterfly unit - I will be sharing this info again - I love this lens !

    • ellagis profile image

      ellagis 

      6 years ago

      What an interesting lens! I love butterflies, although I've never seen a Monarch alive.

    • GuyB LM profile image

      GuyB LM 

      6 years ago

      Excellent lens about the Monarch Butterfly. Those Monarchs are certainly an active bunch with an even more active imagination. Do they have stingers?

    • emmajowebster profile image

      emmajowebster 

      6 years ago

      fantastic lens - I have bookmarked it!

    • profile image

      pawpaw911 

      6 years ago

      Noticed there are a few moving through our area now. It will really pick up next month.

    • HealthfulMD profile image

      Kirsti A. Dyer 

      7 years ago from Northern California

      Another blessing for this beautiful lens. I remember seeing where the Butterflies were near Santa Barbara. Beautiful, but a bit eerie.

    • Stazjia profile image

      Carol Fisher 

      7 years ago from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK

      Great information and stunning pictures - blessed.

    • bechand profile image

      bechand 

      7 years ago

      i remember looking at this about a year ago and being very impressed - hence squidoo wont let me LIKE it again ...LOL - i do love lenses with good content :O) - great work - awesome topic - very interesting

    • Anthony Altorenna profile image

      Anthony Altorenna 

      7 years ago from Connecticut

      Beautiful and informative lens. We designed areas of our garden with annuals, perennials and flowering shrubs to help attract butterflies, and we are rewarded by visits from Monarchs and other types of butterflies.

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image

      Blackspaniel1 

      7 years ago

      Good images

    • profile image

      PollySparkles 

      7 years ago

      I live in New Zealand and the monarchs do not migrate so I find the distance they fly fascinating.

    • KarenHC profile imageAUTHOR

      Karen 

      7 years ago from U.S.

      @Diana Wenzel: I'd love to visit one of the Monarch overwintering sites too, in Mexico. It would definitely be a high point!

    • profile image

      reallysmartdeals 

      7 years ago

      Love your lens. Monarch Butterflies are so beautiful

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      7 years ago from Colorado

      I am hoping to visit the Monarch overwintering sites. That would be one of those truly spectacular life moments. Great lens!

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 

      7 years ago from Central Florida

      Blessings on this lens from the Squidoo Insect Angel. Added to Best Insect Web Pages on Squidoo.

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 

      7 years ago from Central Florida

      I've seen them migrating over Kansas when I was high up in a grandstand at a music festival. It was a magical moment.

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