Monarch Watch Blog

Monarch Butterfly: Top Ten Facts

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009 at 9:23 am by Chip Taylor
Filed under General, Monarch Conservation, Monarch Migration, Monarch Tagging | 3 Comments »

Although monarchs get lots of press, news accounts and video productions often contain errors and misrepresentations that detract from the quality of the productions. The source of these errors is not clear but a quick scan of a number of websites with information on monarchs reveals that there is a lot of confusion about the monarch migration and basic monarch biology. I have written two “briefing documents” that will, I hope, serve to reduce the number of errors appearing in the media. I’ve covered a good deal of basic biology in these materials and, if they contain errors, they are mine, and will be corrected if I’m shown to be wrong.

I have provided two versions of these briefing documents, a “top ten” (included below) based on questions frequently asked by reporters and a longer version (available at that covers another 30 or so aspects of monarch biology.

Dr. Orley R. “Chip” Taylor, Director of Monarch Watch | | 785-864-4850
Revised: April 2009

Hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies migrate from eastern North America to Mexico each fall to overwinter in the high elevation oyamel fir forests of the Transvolcanic Range of central Mexico. Monarchs are unable to survive freezing temperatures and those breeding in temperate regions must escape to moderate climates to reproduce the next season.

Most of the monarchs joining the migration each fall are 3-4 generations removed from those that made the journey the previous year.

The migration begins in mid August in the north and in September at mid latitudes. The migration progresses at a pace of 25-30 miles per day, although individual butterflies often fly further during periods when conditions are favorable. Most monarchs originate from locations more than 1500 linear miles from the overwintering sites. The duration of the migration appears to be 2-2.5 months.

The monarch breeding areas in eastern North America are recolonized by two generations of monarchs; the overwintering butterflies that move north in the spring and their offspring. The latter reach maturity and begin flying N/NE in late April, reaching the northern limits of milkweeds by mid-June.

Migratory monarchs that survive the winter in Mexico are 8-9 months of age and may be the longest lived of all butterflies. In contrast, reproductive monarchs breeding during the summer months only live 2-5 weeks due to the high cost of reproduction.

Monarch populations are measured as the number of hectares (1 hectare = 2.47 acres) of trees occupied by clustering butterflies in mid-December of each year. The size of the population has varied from 2.19 to 18.2 hectares over the last two decades; averaging close to 9 hectares in the 90s and between 5-6 hectares in this decade.

Migrating monarchs in the interior of the continent fly in directions that seem to be geographically appropriate given the need to reach Mexico. How the butterfly determines these directions is the unanswered navigation question. Components of the navigational system that are known involve a time-compensated sun compass linked to the circadian clock, and a protein (Cry1) that is sensitive to blue light and ultraviolet wavelengths.

Tagging by Monarch Watch volunteers has helped define the migration window as well as the timing and pace of the migration. Tagging also shows that the probability of reaching Mexico is related to geographic location, size of the butterfly, and the date (particularly as this relates to the migration window for a given location).

During the breeding season monarchs require milkweed plants upon which to rear their larvae and nectar sources to sustain the adults during reproduction. Nectar sources are also required by the butterflies to fuel the fall migration to Mexico as well as the spring flights northward. Overwintering monarchs require shelter and water. All of these resources are diminishing. Deforestation at the overwintering sites in Mexico has eliminated a number of former colony sites and others have been badly degraded so as to reduce the shelter and water available to wintering butterflies. In the United States, 6000 acres are converted to development each day, eliminating milkweeds needed by monarch larvae and nectar sources required by adult monarchs. Chemically intensive agriculture and roadside management by excessive mowing and use of herbicides have also eliminated monarchs and their milkweed hosts. Lower numbers of overwintering monarchs in this decade may be related, at least in part, to habitat loss.

Sustaining the monarch migration will require the cooperation of all three countries (U.S.A., Canada, Mexico) that are home to monarchs for some portion of the year. Future efforts will be based on the “North American Monarch Conservation Plan” – a program that advocates the implementation of measures to enhance, restore, and protect monarch habitats.

Again, this document and the expanded version are available online at – additional materials will be added in the future. If you have any questions about any of these facts please feel free to drop us a line anytime!

  1. 3 Responses to “Monarch Butterfly: Top Ten Facts”

  2. By v zuckerman on Aug 31, 2009

    My three milkweed plants are covered with monarch caterpillars so much so that there are very few leaves left to eat for so many. Does this mean they will die?

  3. By Chuck Melvin on Oct 2, 2011

    Thank you for your article. It cleared up several questions I had about how many generations of Monarchs it takes to actually complete a migration and how long a Monarch could live.

  4. By Leonard E. bannon on Jun 15, 2012

    I have milkweed plants and plenty of flowers in my yard but I don’t have any Monarch Butterflies, How can I attract them? If I buy a kit and raise them are they likely to stay?

    Len Bannon

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.