Monarch Watch Blog

North Florida Monarch Overwintering Count

24 January 2014 | Author: Jim


Richard G. RuBino
August 2013

Summary: For years monarchs have been seen along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico during January and February, but few attempts to document these sightings have been made. In recognition of this need, a count was undertaken in January and February 2013 to determine the degree of overwintering, if any, along the coast of the eastern end of the Florida Panhandle. The project focused on two questions: do monarch butterflies overwinter along the northern Gulf coast and does milkweed survive northern Gulf coast winters? Sub-questions included: if so, where and at what intensities? The answer to both questions is yes — sometimes. The study found both monarchs and milkweed across the entire length of a four-county coastal area, but the survival of the former is highly dependent on the benevolence of mankind.


Map 1 (PDF file): Observed Locations of Milkweed in the Big Bend of Florida, January-February 2013

Map 2 (PDF file): Observed Locations of Monarchs in the Big Bend of Florida, January-February 2013

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Moving for Monarchs (M4M)

19 December 2013 | Author: Chip Taylor

“Moving For Monarchs” started with an email I received on the 20th of March. My inbox is flooded with emails, so many that I can’t answer them all (and to those of you that I haven’t gotten back to – I apologize). I make a special effort to try to get back to journalists in a timely manner and, when I received an email with the subject line “Hoping to speak with you”, I thought it might be from a journalist and I opened it. To my surprise, it was an offer to assist in publicizing the need for monarch conservation from a 21 year-old dancer, actor, and writer by the name of Gwynedd (pronounced Gwyneth) from New York City. I found the letter to be quite compelling, and Gwynedd and I arranged to talk one Sunday afternoon. The idea of using dance to communicate the importance of monarch conservation was intriguing, but I was skeptical. I didn’t have a clear vision of how this might work and, as with any creative process, Gwynedd needed time for her initial idea to develop and emerge. We spoke many times over the next few months, mostly when I was working in the lab on Sunday afternoons. These were good times to talk since were no interruptions and I did a lot of listening as Gwynedd explored various ideas and tried to bring together a team that could help her fulfill her vision. Late in the spring, the team began to come together, and we started planning how to arrange for Gwynedd and her production crew to come to Kansas to film her first monarch conservation video. I made arrangements with my neighbors Dan and Linda Haney to do some filming on their property and through Dr. John Briggs to conduct most of the shoot on the Konza Prairie just outside of Manhattan, Kansas.

monarch-population-figure-monarchwatchGwynedd testing her wings on the Konza Prairie (23 June 2013). Photo by Chip Taylor.

Gwynedd and her Moving for Monarchs crew arrived in Lawrence for a photo shoot and interviews at Monarch Watch on the afternoon of the 21st of June. Late in the day, we drove to the Konza Prairie to view the shooting locations planned for the next two days. Flowering in the prairie was at its peak with literally thousands of butterfly weeds (Asclepias tuberosa) and other milkweeds in full bloom. The weather during the shoot was iffy with strong winds. Splashes of sunlight scattered over the landscape though gaps in rapidly moving multicolored clouds – some of which shed a tear or two on the prairie. We worked around the rains and the winds and completed the filming late on Sunday the 23rd of June. What followed the trip to Kansas is best told by Gwynedd. The process of post production was long and complex. Gwynedd and Gabriella (the Director of Photography) live in NYC and Washington D.C., respectively, so the process involved a number of bus and train rides as well as extensive online file sharing–tasks completed on a volunteer basis by the young artists. Throughout these stages, Gwynedd and team carried on – working on the project whenever they could while also developing the promotion for the Kickstarter project. I can’t wait for you all to see the film–it speaks to awakening the need to conserve the monarch migration.

Below is the letter that made me Move For Monarchs.

Date: Wed, 20 Mar 2013 22:34:04 -0400
Subject: Hoping to speak with you
From: Gwynedd Vetter-Drusch

Dear Professor Taylor,

I am writing to you after having read the article “Monarch Migration Plunges to Lowest Level in Decades” from the New York Times last week. I would like to take positive action to raise awareness and implement solutions, such as those you have proposed in your latest blog post (including the planting of large amounts of milkweed) in order to counteract the effects of loss of monarch habitat.

I am a 21 year-old dancer, actor, and writer living, studying, and working in New York City. However, I have not always lived in New York. I grew up, in fact, in the small town of Manson, Iowa. My family moved to Manson from Seattle, WA, when I was about nine years old. It was in Manson that I discovered monarchs.

As a child I roamed our family farm (my family has been farming in the area for four generations), including a seven acre pasture which has never been tilled. They say you can still see the stagecoach tracks where the stagecoach used to run through those seven acres. This pasture sat on the edge of town, just across from Rose Hill Cemetery.

During the hours I spent outside in the summertime, I noticed that dozens of monarchs would fly back and forth across the road from the pasture to the cemetery and back again. One day I followed them from the pasture, which was full of milkweed, to the cemetery.

There I saw one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. As I walked down a row of the largest old trees in the cemetery, I realized that the leaves on the branches were shifting and moving. When I came closer, I discovered that the leaves were actually butterflies, turning the branches a rusty orange. It was a large group of butterflies, I would say over a hundred monarchs at least (though to me the numbers seemed even greater), and they had situated themselves on the branches.

If you walked among them or moved a low-hanging branch, the world around you would explode in fluttering orange.

I cannot fully describe the effect that this and other experiences with monarchs have had on me. But those encounters have shaped my work as a performing artist, have been the subject of my poetry and a children’s book I am working on, and have had a profound impact on who I am as a person.

Throughout middle school and high school, I attended various science and environmental leadership camps through the University of Iowa and Northland College (in Ashland, WI). Biology was one of my favorite subjects, and Rachel Carson became one of my personal heroes. However, over time and through some surprising events, my focus shifted to the study of classical ballet, and that took me from Iowa to New York City at the age of 17.

Yet, I have always carried the memory of monarchs with me. Their delicate strength—their ability to migrate so far on seemingly paper-thin wings—has often been the source of personal inspiration when I encountered difficulties throughout my dance studies. In fact, the parallels between monarchs and ballet dancers are striking. Not least among these is the physical transformation of butterfly from earth-bound caterpillar to flying creature, which is like the transformation of dance student to full-fledged dancer, capable of performing amazing physical feats—including hanging for a moment in suspension in the air:  flight.

Perhaps this seems to romanticize a living organism, but in a way monarchs have a sort of mythological appeal. They are these incredibly beautiful, vulnerable creatures who go on a migration journey. I believe that this is one level that every person can relate to, and it is on this level that even those who do not understand the inherent worth of a species in its rightful function within a living system can begin to understand. And they can be inspired to take action.

I feel strongly compelled to take action myself, and as I lay awake in bed for several hours the night after reading the article, an idea came to mind, and I could not sleep until I had gotten out of bed and written down the details. I have been continuing to develop it since then.

I see a way to raise awareness of the problems facing monarchs and help Monarch Watch and other groups in their efforts to solve the problems. What I see combines the art forms of dance and photography (and perhaps film) and the power of the internet in a way that makes the issue highly visible.

I would be very interested in starting a conversation with you about this idea, either by phone or by email, whichever you prefer.

I can be reached at the following number, or at this email address.

Gwynedd Vetter-Drusch

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The Northward Migration: when does it end?

24 June 2013 | Author: Chip Taylor

There are numerous unanswered questions about monarchs. What causes the migration to start in the fall? Why do they fly to Mexico? Why do the overwintering colonies form where they do? Why do the monarchs halt their southern flight at 19.5N? Why not go further? These, and other unanswerable questions, are asked of us frequently. We have to admit that we don’t know the answers but offer speculation and a best guess when we can. Curiously, though many of those we talk to know that monarchs do not continue to migrate through the heart of the breeding season, no one asks – when does the northward migration end in the spring and early summer? Well, it’s a good thing no one asks that question — because we don’t know the answer to that one either.

So when does the northward push by first generation monarchs* end? If there is a celestial component to when monarchs stop moving such as day length or the rate of change in day length or some other factor, is it possible for monarchs to arrive too early in the northern latitudes such that they fly beyond the limits of milkweed? Or, the converse, do conditions during some springs limit northward flight such that the monarchs do not reach the northern limits of milkweeds? In other words, is it possible during extremely cold springs that the “stop signal” whatever it is, is perceived before all the breeding habitat is effectively colonized? I think both things happen but I can’t argue effectively for these possibilities because there is virtually no data on this subject and relatively few credible observations. Years ago I directed one of the undergraduate students I was working with to make daily observations of directional flight by monarchs moving through this part of eastern Kansas in late May and early June. To our surprise, all directional flight appeared to end around the 5-7th of June. Monarchs present in the area were decidedly non-directional after the 7th. Day length is 14h 49m here on the 7th but the amount of change per day is declining rapidly (47 seconds from 7th to 8th) as we approach the summer solstice on the 21st. On that day the daylight period is 14hrs and 54 minutes.

This observation raises some questions. Do monarchs stop moving when the rate of change in day length drops substantially below a minute per day, and does this mean that monarchs stop directional movement progressively with increasing latitude?

The day-to-day differences become progressively smaller as one approaches the equinox. For example, at Duluth, MN, day-length increases by 25 seconds on the 14th and by only 11 seconds on the 18th.

Let’s see what happens at different locations as we move northward:

Daylength in June
Lawrence, KS
14h 49m
14h 54m
7th-8th 47 seconds
Des Moines, IA
15h 06m
15h 12m
7th-8th 48 seconds
St. Paul, MN
15h 30m
15h 37m
9th-10th 48 seconds
Duluth, MN
15h 45m
15h 52m
9th-10th 49 seconds

Note that the rate of change (less than 50 seconds per day) shifts from the 7th to 8th for Lawrence to the 9th-10th for St. Paul. Thus, if migration northward ends as a function of latitude and rate of change per day, we would expect the most northerly monarchs to still be showing directional flight even though directional flight has stopped further south.

This is certainly an interesting possibility but we need data and, as I said, there is virtually none. So here is where those of you making observations of first sightings can help. If you see a monarch, note its flight behavior. Is it nectaring, searching for oviposition sites or is it showing directional flight? And, if it is showing directional flight, what direction is it moving – that is, what is its compass bearing (approximate bearings would do for a start**)? Directional flight is particularly difficult to observe in the spring. In most cases the butterflies are flying quite fast at a height of 3-4 meters. If you are driving on east -west roads during May and June look for monarchs crossing in front of you from S to N (or NE) at a height just above your car or pickup.

Observations of directional flight are valuable and will further our understanding of monarch behavior. Such observations could be shared with our email discussion list (Dplex-L) or reported to Journey North. Systematic studies by students or even groups of citizens of directional flight over a series of weeks in the spring and early summer at different latitudes could resolve this question. An alternative approach would be experimental releases with monarchs that had been reared under specific natural conditions or by using a flight simulator.

*First generation monarchs are offspring of monarchs that overwintered in Mexico. The first of these monarchs begin moving north in the last week April, with most moving north in May and early June.

** Many smart phones have a compass app available to them. To obtain the bearing of a monarch moving directly away from you, point the phone at the monarch and take a screen shot of the compass. The image should be time-stamped and may even include latitude and longitude so it can be reviewed later.

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The Milkweed Gamble

21 June 2013 | Author: Chip Taylor

I’m not a gambler but I gambled this spring with milkweed production. The question/gamble was – if we produced 25, 000 milkweed plugs, could we get people to buy them? I thought we could but, if we couldn’t, the money invested in the production of the plugs would be lost. I worried about it – a lot.

Our partner in this enterprise was Applied Ecological Services (AES). Working with Elliott Duemler, manager of the Kaw River division of AES in Baldwin, KS, we planned the production of milkweeds suitable for states from coast to coast. This production was enabled by the collection of seeds of numerous milkweed species from specific regions of the country by many volunteers. Tori Pocius, our milkweed coordinator at Monarch Watch, processed, cataloged and stored each batch of seed. When it came to making decisions on what to propagate and how many plugs to produce for each area, we checked the seed sources, decided which to use and then we guessed at the number of seedlings to produce for each region. Sometimes we over produced, sometimes we hit the mark and other times propagation failed or too few seedlings were produced to provide an adequate number of plugs. Propagation of milkweeds is not an exact science and some batches of seed fail to germinate under the best of conditions. Overall, production of seedlings was excellent and the next step was to transplant these seedlings and grow them out to the plug stage. Again, it was a guessing game – how many orders might we expect from each region of the country? We had no idea but gave it a shot and again, we over-produced and under-produced for some regions but overall, we did well.

Sales went well also. We sold over 19,000 milkweed plugs and at the end of the season distributed 5700 seedlings in bulk lots, mostly to people in northeastern states. Some 4000 plugs remain and most of these will be held over the summer for distribution in the fall to the following states, TX, WI, MI, MN, NY, PA.

We gambled and won! Wow! We wish to thank all of you who purchased these milkweeds – may they flourish and produce many monarchs. We especially wish to thank our partners – The Native Plant Society of Texas, Wild Ones, especially the Tennessee chapter, Nicole Hamilton and the Loudon Wildlife Conservancy for engaging their supporters and encouraging the planting of milkweeds. Special thanks also to Elliott and his excellent staff at AES. Their ability to propagate and grow milkweeds made all of this possible. And, I want to thank Tori Pocius for facilitating all the communications between AES, Monarch Watch and all the customers.

We learned a lot about growing and distributing milkweeds this year. We made some mistakes and have a list of dos and don’ts lined up for next year. So, what should our target be for next year – 30K, 35K or even 40K milkweed plugs? If you are interested in milkweed plugs for you area, contact us at Please consult the Milkweed Market for hard to find milkweeds in your area.

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Monarch Population Status

29 May 2013 | Author: Chip Taylor

Will this be a lean year for monarchs followed by another low overwintering population?

A slow start, a small population and some predictions

Monarchs are off to a slow start this year, with the number moving north in May at an all time low (as indicated by first sightings reported to Journey North). In the following paragraphs I’ll explain why this will be a lean year for monarchs and why the overwintering population in Mexico could be even lower this coming winter than it was in 2012-2013. Predicting whether monarch populations will increase or decrease would seem to be risky or even foolish but, as you will see, there are patterns that support these predictions based on: 1) overwintering numbers; 2) first sightings in the spring (1997-2013); and 3) the impact of temperature on the development of the first generation immature stages and the ability of adult monarchs to move northward to recolonize the breeding areas in the northern states and Canada.

As most of you know, the overwintering monarch population for 2012-2013 was the smallest recorded to date (see our Monarch Population Status article from March 14th). This number defines the upper limit for the number of monarchs returning north in the spring. There are at least two factors that diminish this number – overwintering mortality and mortality as the monarchs migrate through northern Mexico to Texas. Unfortunately, there is no consistent quantitative data on either of these factors. Further, no assessments have been made of the lipid reserves of the monarchs returning to Texas. These reserves are likely to vary from year to year and they probably determine the longevity and reproductive success of the returning females. In spite of the lack of data on these points, the data on overwintering numbers, first sightings and temperature are robust enough to define some patterns and make predictions.

First sightings

The first sightings reported to Journey North have been particularly useful in helping us understand the dynamics of the spring migration. Although first sightings data have a number of limitations, they reveal when and where returning monarchs are seen as they move into the United States and Canada. These sightings also reveal when first generation monarchs moving north and northeast from southern states reach the northern breeding grounds. Even though these data can’t be used quantitatively, they do provide a relative measure of the number of monarchs on the move each spring. Relative to other years (1997-2012) the number of first sightings reported in March and April in Texas this spring was the lowest recorded since 2005 (Table 3). Since more people have been reporting first sightings each year, the low numbers seen this year may be more significant than is suggested by the numbers. Are the low numbers of sightings this spring simply due to the modest number of returning monarchs or is the cooler than normal weather in the mid portion of the country also a factor?

Size of the overwintering population

Although the size of the overwintering monarch population in Mexico is determined by a number of factors, two major drivers of the population (certainly the easiest to document) are habitat area and weather. As you may remember from reading our Blog articles, monarch/milkweed habitat has declined significantly in parallel with the rapid adoption of glyphosate-tolerant corn and soybeans and, since 2006, the rapid expansion of corn and soy acreage to accommodate the production of biofuels (Brower et al, 2011a,b, Pleasants and Oberhauser, 2012 and Taylor, 2012). Monarchs have declined coincident with these habitat losses and the losses are continuing. Monarch numbers will continue to decline unless the collective efforts of citizens, communities, and governments are large enough to offset the annual loss of habitat. While the amount of habitat defines the resource base that monarchs require, weather often determines the extent to which these resources are used in a given year and hence the size of the fall and winter populations.

The impact of weather on the monarch population can be direct and obvious or quite subtle and complicated; especially since the weather conditions in one part of the northern breeding area can differ significantly from those in another. The breeding season for the monarch population extends from March through October (depending on latitude). If we break this season down into three periods, spring (March, April, May), summer (June, July, August), and early fall (September, October) and systematically look at year to year temperature variation for each of these periods, it is apparent that spring conditions are the most variable and most likely to affect the population. And, they do.

Effects of temperature on immature stages and adult monarchs

Before we dive into interpretations of the data, it might be useful to describe the general response of returning monarchs to spring temperatures. Flight and oviposition are both temperature limited. The lower and upper limits for both activities are not well defined but it is safe to say that there is little of either in the spring below 60F or above 90F. Monarchs leave the overwintering sites in Mexico in late February and early March when the late morning temperatures reach the high 60s to low 70s. The conditions are generally clear to mostly sunny at the start of these flights. Presumably, similar conditions have to occur for returning monarchs to move northward into Texas and for first generation monarchs to move into the northern breeding areas. Oviposition can be observed under sunny conditions when the temperatures reach the high 60s. Higher temperatures and reduced wind speeds at ground level appear to facilitate egg-laying. Both flight and egg-laying increase as temperatures increase from these minimal levels through the mid 80s and then begin to decline. At issue is the overall impact of temperature on monarch dispersal, realized fecundity, and longevity.

It is well known that the maturation rates of monarch eggs, larvae, and pupae are temperature dependent. At the highest temperatures, eggs can hatch in 3.5 days; however, at low temperatures egg development can be extended. On the 10th of April 2011, Jackie Goetz observed a newly arrived monarch lay and abundance of eggs on emerging milkweeds in her garden in Overland Park, Kansas. The weather became much colder after the 14th (with an extended cold period from 18-28 April) and those eggs did not hatch until after they were brought indoors on the 29th of April – some 19 days after oviposition. Similar comments could be made about the development of larvae and pupae. Less well-known are the effect of temperatures on adult longevity, egg-laying rates, and dispersal, specifically movement to the north and northeast in the spring.

In the laboratory we extend the longevity and reproductive output of monarchs in our culture by limiting the number of “daylight” hours while keeping the temperatures below 80F. Longer days and higher temperatures can produce large quantities of eggs over a short period but the monarchs die sooner. This outcome is expected. At higher temperatures, metabolic rates are higher and require greater inputs in terms of water and carbohydrates (nectar) and a more rapid conversion of fat body to sugars (trehalose, etc.).

Thus, the response of both the immature stages and adults to lower temperatures is the same. Life is extended in both cases but there is a difference. Extending the duration of development for immatures increases their exposure to predators, parasites, and other incidental causes of death such as heavy rains. However, extending the adult stage probably results in higher reproductive output (realized fecundity) in most cases. So, what should a returning female monarch do? Should it move northward as the temperatures allow, laying eggs along the way or, assuming it has a choice, should it lay most of its eggs in areas where the immature stages will develop most rapidly? As we will see, these data indicate that temperatures above 70F allow the returning monarchs to expand their distribution while periods with temperatures below 70F reduce movement. There are consequences of both moving northward too rapidly and too slowly. The warmer conditions expose the monarchs that have expanded the distribution furthest to the north to late spring storms and cold weather – conditions that reduce egg-laying. Further, the eggs and larvae that are produced by the monarchs on the leading northward edge can be exposed to low, sometimes freezing, temperatures resulting in delayed development and higher mortality rates. On the other hand, cool conditions can result in a delay in the arrival of first generation monarchs in the northern breeding grounds. Both extremes are associated with lower numbers of monarchs during the migration and reductions in the total hectares occupied at the overwintering sites.

Impact of spring temperatures in the South Region

The temperature in the South Region (Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi) in March has a big impact on the number of overwintering monarchs the following winter. The March temperatures for the South Region from 1994-2013 are given in Figure 1. Appended to the mean temperature for each year is a numerical figure indicating the net change in the size of the overwintering population from that of the previous year. Red indicates the population has declined and black indicates an increase in the population from one year to the next. Note that the declines (red numbers) are associated with higher than normal temperatures (7 out of 9 records) for this month while the increases (black numbers) are associated with cooler than normal temperatures or those close to the long-term mean (7 out of 8 records). There would seem to be some predictive value in this simple analysis. Indeed, when I first drew up this figure for the Monarch Biology and Conservation Meeting in Minnesota last June, I put a question mark for the change that might be expected from 2011 to 2012. The high mean temperature for March suggested that the population would decline and indeed it did from 2.89 to 1.19 hectares or a decline of 1.7 hectares. Although a single factor can go a long way in helping us understand what is happening, we can’t ignore the possibility that other factors are involved. If it is really as simple as this summary suggests, we would project that the monarch population will increase from 2012 to 2013 on the basis of the below normal temperatures for March in the South Region in 2013. Unfortunately, this won’t be the case. To understand why I’m making this assertion, I’m going to tell you why this year is both similar to and different from the springs of 1996 and 1997 (there are similarities to other years as well).

The March temperatures for 1996 were the coldest for the period (1994-2013) and the population increased from 12.61 to 20.97 hectares (+8.4 hectares) which is the largest increase yet recorded.* In 1997 the March temperatures were above normal and the population crashed, the worst decline in the record, from a high of 20.97 hectares in 1996 to 5.77 hectares in 1997 (-15.2 hectares). However, neither the increase in the population in 1996 nor the decrease in 1997 was entirely due to March temperatures; April temperatures for each year were strikingly different. While the April temperatures for 1996 were about a degree (F) below normal, those for 1997 were 4.9F below normal (the lowest in this record and the second coldest April from 1895 to present). Further, a blast of cold air with freezing temperatures (some as low as 25F) that extended into Oklahoma and north central Texas during 11-14 April is certain to have delayed development and killed some of the developing larvae and early-arrived adult monarchs in this region. Thus, cold and even freezing temperatures in the South Region in April 1997 likely contributed as much or more to the decline as did the high March temperatures of that year.**

May temperatures also differed substantially between these two years. In 1996 May temperatures were about 4.5 degrees F above normal while those for 1997 were about 3.5 degrees F below normal (also the lowest in this 20 year record). The 1996 conditions would favor rapid movement of the first generation monarchs (which typically begin moving north in the last week of April, with most moving north in May) out of Texas into all of the northern breeding areas (unfortunately, recording first sightings data by Journey North did not start until 1997). However, the colder April and May temperatures in 1997 would be expected to delay the arrival in the north of those that survived the late spring freeze. In fact, the mean arrival date in the north in 1997 was later than for all other years (Figure 14.6, Howard and Davis 2004).

Summer temperatures in the northern breeding areas can also contribute to the size of the overwintering population but the difference between the conditions in June, July, and August did not differ substantially for these two years. The differences in the outcomes were largely due to the conditions from March through May of each year.

Which brings us to why the spring of 2013 is both similar to and different from 1996 and 1997. As you can see from the summary in Table 1, 1996 and 2013 are similar in that both March and April means were colder than usual. These conditions would be expected to slow down development of larvae and reduce the dispersal northward of returning migrants. The May temperatures in 1996 were much higher than those of this year – which will be close to normal. Again, the high temperatures in May of 1996 would facilitate northward movement of first generation monarchs while the more normal May temperatures this year would be expected to neither slow nor accelerate movement northward.

Table 1. Summary of monthly mean temperatures for the South Region.
Deviations from the mean are shown in brackets.

  March April May
1996 49.2 (-4.4) 61.2 (-1.0) 74.7 (+4.5)
1997 56.8 (+3.2) 57.3 (-4.9) 68.2 (-2.2)
2013 51.6 (-2.0) 59.5 (-2.7) ***

***(cold early but near average for the month)

Degree days

We can also use monarch degree days to compare these years. You can find an explanation of degree days in a 2005 article, Monarchs, Cold Summers, Jet Streams, Volcanoes, and More. Monarchs have both low and high temperatures at which development stops. These points are referred to as “developmental zero” with the low point being 52.7F (11.5C) and the high 91.4F (33C) (Zalucki, 1982). The simplest explanation for degree days is as follows: if the mean temperature for a 24-hour period is 1 degree above the developmental zero value, the total degree days for that day is one. If the mean is 20 degrees above developmental zero for a 24 hour period, the total would be 20 degree days and so on. The total number of degree days required from egg to adult is close to 640 Fahrenheit degree days. We have used this estimate to calculate the number of days required to complete development from egg to adult for each of the locations mentioned in Table 2. To compare locations and years we calculated development for eggs laid on the dates indicated. The spread of the dates and locations approximates the estimated dates of arrival of numerous monarchs at particular latitudes (represented by the cities). The developmental times are probably an overestimate since 4th and 5th instar larvae have the capability of increasing their body temperature and reducing overall developmental time by basking in sunlight. Nevertheless, it is the comparison of the years that is important and these figures show that the development times for 2013 bear similarities to both 1996 and 1997 depending on starting date and location (latitude).

Table 2. Approximate number of degree days required from oviposition to emergence for eggs deposited on the March and April dates indicated for each city.

City Latitude Eggs Laid 1996 1997 2003 2013
Corpus Christi, TX 27N 10 Mar 46 40 41 36
Austin, TX 30N 20 Mar 43 50 42 42
Dallas, TX 33N 28 Mar 41 49 39 44
Ardmore, OK 34N 1 Apr 42 50 39 53

Figure 1. March temperatures for the South Region from 1994-2013. Appended to the mean temperature for each year is a numerical figure indicating the net change in the size of the overwintering population from that of the previous year. Red indicates the population has declined and black indicates an increase in the population from one year to the next. Note that the declines (red numbers) are associated with higher than normal temperatures (7 out of 9 records) for this month while the increases (black numbers) are associated with cooler than normal temperatures or those close to the long-term mean (7 out of 8 records). Summer temperatures account for some of the year-to-year changes. Warmer than normal (but not extremely hot (2012)) summers appear to contribute to an increase in the overwintering numbers (e.g., 1995, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010) (Taylor, 2012 and Barve et al., 2012). It should be noted that this approach only allows us to predict the direction of change and not the amount of the change from one year to the next.

An examination of first sightings

A comparison of the first sightings for 2013 with those summarized in Table 3 would seem to suggest some similarities between 2004 and 2005. A glance at Figure 1 shows that the population declined from 2003 to 2004 by 8.9 hectares (the second steepest decline) while the population for 2005 showed an increase of 3.7 hectares. These observations give rise to a number of questions such as: 1) do the first sightings have any predictive value; 2) aside from warm temperatures in March, were there other factors that contributed to the 2003-2004 decline; and 3) why did the population increase from 2004 to 2005? The answer to the first question is yes, the first sightings do have predictive value but it is the “when and where” of the first sightings that is important rather than the numbers per se. This point should be clearer as we progress through the analysis. The low numbers of first sighting in the spring of 2004 are likely the result of the massive mortality that occurred at the overwintering sites that followed two severe periods of rain and freezing weather in January and February of 2004. The mortality from these storms was not well documented but there are many indications (from the number of recovered tags for example) that the mortality due to these storms was equal to, if not worse, than that of the storm that started on 12 January 2002 during which at least 70% of the monarchs died (Brower, et al 2004). The number of surviving monarchs in 2004 still should have been sufficient to recolonize Texas and produce a large first generation capable of recolonizing the northern breeding areas but that did not happen. The explanation lies in several factors:

1) March temperatures were the third highest of the period (+4.9F) and these were followed by a near-normal April (-0.2F) and a May with above normal temperatures (+1.7F). The March temperatures may have been the most detrimental, and would have been particularly stressful if monarchs that survived the winter storms were in poor condition.

2) The low numbers of returning monarchs, combined with the spring conditions and perhaps other factors, resulted in late arrival of first generation monarchs in the northern breeding areas. Late arrivals (after 1 June) in the summer breeding range are generally associated with population declines from one year to the next. But, there was yet another factor that kept this population from rebounding.

3) The summer of 2004 in the northern breeding areas (East North Central = upper Midwest) was the third coldest since 1895. Cold summers (1992, 2004, 2009) have all been associated with population declines. The conditions in 2005 were almost the opposite – near normal temperatures for March (-0.4F), April (-0.4F), and May (-0.9F) but warmer than normal summer temperatures. The first generation monarchs also arrived late in the northern breeding areas in 2005, although a bit earlier than those in 2004.

So, what does this tell us about what to expect in the fall and winter of 2013? Let’s deal with the number of observations first. Although, the number of first sightings reported in 2013 is similar to those of 2004 and 2005, the number of people reporting first sightings has increased significantly since reporting of first sighting began in 1997 (Howard and Davis 2004). In other words, fewer monarchs have been seen this year by a larger group of observers – suggesting that the number of returning monarchs was lower in 2013 than in 2004 and 2005 (both low returning populations) or even 2010, which saw the lowest overwintering population (1.92 hectares) prior to that of this past winter.

There is a similarity between 2013 and 2004 – the monarchs will arrive late in the northern breeding areas. The mean temperatures for March (-2.0F) and April (-2.7F) were the lowest for these months since 1996 and the April temperatures in particular slowed development of immature stages. May temperatures – which in most of the South Region are near or just below normal – have not appreciably aided northward movement of first generation monarchs. The result of all of these factors is that the arriving number of first generation monarchs will be low and they will arrive late. Even if this projection is true, is there a chance that the population can rebound as it did in 2005? Yes, but the temperatures in nearly all of the northern breeding range will have to be above normal by 2-3F throughout the summer for the population to increase. If the temperatures are normal (and normal summer temperatures are projected by NOAA for the upper Midwest (see the National Weeather Service’s Climate Prediction Center), the overwintering population is likely to be in the range of 1 hectare again this coming winter and could be much lower.

Table 3. First sighting data reported to Journey North (exclusive of areas west of the Rockies and Florida) from 1997-2013. The first sightings reported in March and April represent monarchs returning from Mexico while the majority of sightings reported 1-20 May represent first generation monarchs. Monarchs reported from 21 May through 9 June represent first generation monarchs. First sightings recorded after 9 June are not recorded here for several reasons, these monarchs were probably present in the northern part of the range on 9 June, their numbers are low, and such late arrivers are not likely to contribute substantially to the population relative to those arriving earlier.

Year March April May 1-20 May 21-Jun 9
2013 78 82 42 211
2012 236 137 396 69
2011 148 319 125 273
2010 127 125 157 296
2009 138 209 96 176
2008 124 169 78 227
2007 141 109 118 228
2006 150 192 44 275
2005 74 95 36 151
2004 68 63 60 103
2003 113 86 67 75
2002 197 72 59 164
2001 76 99 199 105
2000 82 109 112 79
1999 54 86 75 111
1998 41 63 106 66
1997 68 109 49 35

The figures below represent first sightings distribution maps for 25 April as recorded by Journey North for the years indicated. The 25 April date was chosen since sightings up to this date are likely to include only monarchs returning from Mexico. The maps were selected to represent a range of March and April conditions from the coldest (2013) to the warmest (2012) spring. The mean temperatures for each month and the deviations from normal are given in the lower right corner of each map.

* A moderate drought extended through most of Texas in March and April of 1996.
**The first sightings data appears to show that monarchs move “around” the jet stream to the northeast when it dips into the central part of the continent in the spring. This movement may account for the number of monarchs recorded per hour during the fall migration at Cape May, NJ in 1997. In contrast to the Midwest, where the migration was relatively low, the monarch monitoring at Cape May in 1997 yielded the 5th highest count per hour in the 21year history of that program.


I wish to thank Elizabeth Howard of Journey North for allowing me to modify and incorporate first sighting maps in this article. Janis Lentz graciously helped with the weather data, summarized the first sightings data, and calculated the projected degree days for eggs laid on specific dates at each location. Jim Lovett and Ann Ryan once again added their excellent editing touches to the text and compensated for my limited abilities to provide the proper formatting by doing things the right way.


Brower, L.P., Kust, D.R., Rendon-Salinas, E., Serrano, E.G., Kust, K.R., Miller, J., Fernandez del Rey, C. & K. Pape, K. (2004) Catastrophic winter storm mortality of monarch butterflies in Mexico in January 2002. Monarch Butterfly Biology and Conservation (ed. by K.M. Oberhauser and M. Solensky), pp. 151-166. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.

Brower, L.P., Taylor, O.R. & Williams, E.H. (2011b) Response to Davis: choosing relevant evidence to assess monarch population trends. Insect Conservation and Diversity. doi: 10.1111/ j.1752-4598.2011.00176.x

Brower, L.P., Taylor, O.R., Williams, E.H., Slayback, D.A., Zu- bieta, R.R. & Ramirez, M.I. (2011a) Decline of monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexico: is the migratory phenomenon at risk? Insect Conservation and Diversity. doi: 10.1111/j.1752- 4598.2011.00142.x.

Howard, E. and A. K. Davis (2004) Documenting the spring movements of monarch butterflies with Journey North, a citizen science program. Monarch Butterfly Biology and Conservation (ed. by K.M. Oberhauser and M. Solensky), pp. 105-114. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.

Pleasants, J. M. and K.S. Oberhauser (2012) Milkweed loss in agricultural fields because of herbicide use: effect on the monarch butterfly population. Insect Conservation and Diversity (2012) doi: 10.1111/j.1752-4598.

Barve, V., O.R. Taylor, J. Lentz and E. Howard (2012) Monarch population Dynamics: The relationship of temperature to patterns of recolonization by monarchs returning from Mexico. Monarch Biology and Conservation Meeting: Minnesota 2012 (Presentation by Vijay Barve)

Taylor, O. R. (2012) Conservation and restoration of monarch butterfly habitats. Monarch Biology and Conservation Meeting: Minnesota 2012 (Presentation by O. R. Taylor)

Zalucki, M.P. (1982) Temperature and the rate of development in two species of Danaus, D. plexippus and D. chrysippus. J. Aust. Entomol. 21:241-246.

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Monarch Population Status

14 March 2013 | Author: Chip Taylor

The World Wildlife Fund-Mexico / Telcel Alliance, in collaboration with Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP), held a press conference late on the 13th of March 2013 to announce the results of the status of the monarch populations that overwinter in the oyamel forests of Mexico. Measures of the areas occupied by each of the nine monarch colonies in the states of Michoacan and Mexico totaled 1.19 hectares. This number represents a decline of almost 59% from the area occupied the previous winter. Further, this population is the smallest recorded since the monarch colonies came to the attention of scientists in 1975. A visual inspection of Figure 1 reveals a clear downward trend in the population:

Figure 1. Total Area Occupied by Monarch Colonies at Overwintering Sites in Mexico

This decline is statistically significant* (analysis by Ernest Williams, Hamilton College):

linear regression: p=0.004, R squared = 0.402
exponential regression: p=0.001, R squared = 0.477

At issue is the cause of the decline and there are a number of factors involved:

1) The loss of milkweeds in row crops (corn and soybeans) due to the adoption of seed varieties genetically modified to tolerate treatment with herbicides. The utilization of these herbicide tolerant crops has all but eliminated milkweeds from these fields.

2) The push for the production of biofuels, which has resulted in the planting of 25.5 million more acres of corn and soybeans than were planted as recently as 2006. This increase has been at the expense of milkweed-containing Conservation Reserve Program land, grassland, and rangeland (as well as other crops).

3) Development, which consumes 6000 acres at day or 2.2 million acres a year.

4) Intensive farming that reduces the area from the edge of the road to the field and management of our roadsides with the use of herbicides (and excessive mowing) which also eliminates milkweeds.

5) Deforestation of the oyamel fir forests – although this has declined over the last few years, the condition of these forests is less than optimal for the survival of overwintering monarchs.

6) Unusual weather – and we had plenty of that during the 2012 monarch breeding season. March was the warmest recorded since nationwide record keeping began in 1895. Warm weather tends allow returning monarchs to spread north rapidly and arrivals of monarchs in areas north of Oklahoma in April are often followed by low temperatures that delay development of the population. In 2012, first generation monarchs moving north-northeast out of Texas arrived much earlier in the northern breeding areas than previously recorded. Historically, low overwintering numbers have followed the early arrival of monarchs. These early establishments were followed by one of the hottest and driest summers in recent decades. Hot and dry conditions probably have the effect of reducing adult lifespan and therefore the number of eggs laid per female over their lifetime.

All in all, it was not a good year for monarchs. While some of the present decline can certainly be attributed to the seasonal conditions last summer, it is the decline of monarch habitats in the United States and Mexico that is the major concern. The good news is that we can do something about the habitats in the United States and Canada – we can plant milkweed. That said, in order to compensate for the continued loss of habitat we need to plant LOTS AND LOTS of milkweed. To assure a future for monarchs, conservation and restoration of milkweeds needs to become a national priority.

Chip Taylor
Director, Monarch Watch

* p values indicate the probability of the outcome being due to chance alone. P values of less than 0.01 are considered to be extremely low. R squared represents the relationship between two variables. R square values range from 0-1. High values indicate that two variable are highly correlated.

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Monarch Butterfly Survey Points to Lowest Numbers in 20 years

13 March 2013 | Author: Jim


Press Release March 13, 2013

Monarch Butterfly Survey Points to Lowest Numbers in 20 Years

ZITÁCUARO, Mexico – The percentage of forest occupied by monarch butterflies in Mexico, used as an indicator of the number of butterflies that arrive to that country each winter, reached its lowest level in two decades. According to a survey carried out during the 2012-2013 winter season by the WWF-Telcel Alliance, and Mexico’s National Commission of Protected Areas (CONAP), the nine hibernating colonies occupy a total area of 2.94 acres (1.19 ha) of forest – representing a 59% decrease from the 2011-2012 survey of 7.14 acres (2.89 ha).

The survey was conducted in five hibernation colonies inside the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (two in the State of Mexico, and three in Michoacán), and four colonies outside the reserve (three in the State of Mexico, and one in Michoacán). To carry out the monitoring, bi-weekly tours are conducted in the premises of the colonies which have been surveyed historically, by calculating the perimeter and systematizing the data with spatial analysis software.

“Colonies located inside the reserve occupied 78.2% of the total area (0.93 has), while colonies outside of the reserve occupied the 21.8% (0.26 has). The largest colony was found in El Rosario, Michoacán, occupying 0.63 has (52.9% of the total area). For the first time the survey registered a colony in the indigenous community of San Pablo Malacatepec, State of Mexico, with a total of 17 properties with colonies of hibernating monarch butterflies in Mexico,” said Luis Fueyo, Commissioner of CONANP.

The latest decrease in monarch butterflies is likely due to a decrease in the milkweed plant (Asclepias) – a primary food for monarchs – from herbicide use in the butterfly’s reproductive and feeding grounds in the US, as well as extreme climate variations during the fall and summer affecting butterfly reproduction.

“Extreme climate fluctuations in the US and Canada affect the survival and reproduction of butterflies. The monarch’s lifecycle depends on the climatic conditions in the places where they develop. Eggs, larvae and pupae develop more quickly in milder conditions. Temperatures above 95F can be lethal for larvae, and eggs dry out in hot, arid conditions, causing a drastic decrease in hatch rate,” said Omar Vidal, Director General of WWF-Mexico.

The butterflies that migrate to Mexico feed on milkweed in the soy and corn fields of the US. The use of herbicides to eradicate this plant, considered a toxic weed for cattle, has reduced the amount of available milkweed by up to 58%. “The conservation of monarch butterflies is a responsibility shared by Mexico, the US and Canada. By protecting its sanctuaries and practically eliminating large-scale deforestation, Mexico is doing its part. It is necessary that the US and Canada also do their part and protect the habitat of the monarch in their countries,” Vidal added.

“The WWF-Telcel Alliance celebrates 10 years of supporting the conservation and sustainable management of the natural resources of Mexico and the well-being of the people that depend on those resources. The Alliance has worked with local communities, the government and civil society to conserve the monarch forests in a way that benefits nature, local populations, and those that visit the Reserve. Among these projects is the development of sustainable business such as tree nurseries, mushroom production modules, and handicraft production, as well as the improvement of tourist infrastructure at El Rosario, and Cerro Prieto in Michoacán” said Marcela Velasco, Director of Marketing at Telcel.

Forest Area Occupied by Monarch Butterfly Colonies from 1993-2013.

Images available at:

For more information please contact:

Monica Echeverria at WWF-US
(202) 495 46 26

Daniel Bravo, at WWF-Mexico
(52-55) 5286-5631 ext. 246

Gustavo Aranda at Telcel in Mexico
(52-55) 2581 3700 ext. 5162

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Monarch Butterfly Conservation: The Challenges Ahead

25 February 2013 | Author: Jim

Monarch Matters: February 2013
By Candy Sarikonda, Monarch Watch Conservation Specialist

The OH Lepidopterists Society held its annual meeting in Columbus on January 19, 2013. The keynote speaker was Dr. Chip Taylor, Director of Monarch Watch. Dr. Taylor presented a power point presentation entitled, “Monarch Butterfly Conservation: The Challenges Ahead.”

Dr. Taylor began by briefly covering the dynamics of the monarch migration. He pointed out that the migration is very predictable, and seems to be associated with the declining angle of the sun. He described how the monarchs arrive in Mexico “virtually the same day every single year,” and their arrival coincides with the local festival, El Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. For this reason, the native people of Mexico have long believed that the monarchs are the souls of their deceased loved ones, arriving to enjoy offerings from their ceremonial shrines, or ofrendas.

“The monarch migration is absolutely spectacular,” explained Dr. Taylor. But the monarch population is declining, and World Wildlife Fund has declared the monarch migration endangered. This winter, the monarch overwintering population in Mexico is likely to be the lowest ever recorded. Dr. Taylor predicts the population to be about 1.5 hectares, or less than 100 million butterflies. Why are the monarchs declining?

Dr. Taylor earnestly explained that global climate change is underway. “Monarchs are symbolic of what is happening, at some level, to everything that interests you—lepidoptera, birds, native vegetation.” He pointed out that for the past 16 years, U.S temperatures have been above the 20th century average. Global temperatures have been above the 20th century average for the past 36 consecutive years. He warned the audience that global climate change has started, and the effects of this change are coming rapidly. He urged, “We need to find a way to cope with the changes coming our way.” Increasing drought, severe storm events, and unpredictable spring and summer temperatures will become the new reality, and these changes will affect not only monarchs, but many of our native flora and fauna.

Dr. Taylor also described the impact that herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops have had on the monarch population. Using a series of graphs, he demonstrated how the monarch population declined coincident with the increased planting of HT corn and soybeans. HT crops were planted beginning in 1996, and began to be used widely in 2000. It was then that monarch scientists began noticing a decline in the monarch population. “Once HT crops represented 40% of the total acreage, we began noticing a significant decline in the monarch population.” Dr. Taylor and his colleagues estimate that 160 million acres of habitat, or roughly 20% of the breeding range of eastern monarchs, has been lost as a result of the introduction of HT corn and soybeans. Interestingly, he pointed out that shifting crop production and the use of Conservation Reserve Protected (CRP) land has also changed dramatically. During a period when farmland decreased by 10 million acres, corn and soybean acreage actually went up—representing a conversion of 25.5 million acres of CRP land, grasslands, range lands and acres previously used for other crops to corn and soybeans.

HT crops have resulted in the loss of monarch habitat. But also at issue is development. In the U.S., development has resulted in the loss of 6,000 acres of habitat per day, or 2.2 million acres per year. Additional habitat has been lost as a result of more intensive agricultural practices that reduce field margins, referring to the space between crops and the roadside. Increased mowing and herbicidal spraying of roadsides has diminished pollinator habitat. Mosquito spraying has detrimentally affected lepidoptera. The list goes on. It feels overwhelming. So what can we do?

Dr. Taylor described two programs he created, the Monarch Waystation program, and the Bring Back the Monarch (BBTM) campaign. Both programs aim to increase the planting of milkweed and the creation of pollinator-friendly habitat. The Monarch Waystation program encourages members of the public to create pollinator-friendly garden habitats at homes, schools, businesses, nature centers and preserves. Citizens can then certify the habitat site through Monarch Watch, and display a metal sign identifying their site as a Monarch Waystation. By certifying the site, citizens can show support for monarch conservation, and displaying the Waystation sign helps educate the public about this conservation effort. The BBTM campaign is a milkweed restoration campaign, which aims to restore native milkweeds by collecting seed, identifying restoration opportunities, growing and supplying milkweed plugs for restoration efforts, and creating partnerships between organizations with the ultimate goal of increasing monarch habitat.

What else can we do to improve monarch habitat? We need to change our mowing practices. Protect our roadside native vegetation. Stop spraying herbicides, and mow less frequently or not at all. Speak up and tell city officials that we do not want them to mow or spray, and pat them on the back when they listen. Ask local plant nurseries to carry milkweed and native plants that are pesticide-free. Volunteer on nature preserves and at city parks—encourage management to plant milkweed. Collect milkweed seeds. Monitor a milkweed patch. Educate the public—through school programs, talks at local libraries, displays at nature centers, articles in the newspaper or on radio—by any means we have at our disposal. Realize that no one person can do it alone, we all have to pitch in—and every one of us has a voice that is valuable.

Throughout the presentation, Dr. Taylor referred to the new Imax 3D film, Flight of the Butterflies. He shared his experience of the film and said, “There is a shot at the end of the film where butterflies cascade off the trees in unimaginable tens of thousands, and the sky turns orange…suddenly, you become aware of the fact that much of what you are hearing, throughout the film, is the rustle of butterfly wings. How many times have you been to a place where the predominant background sound is the rustle of insect wings?”

Let’s do everything we can to make sure we keep hearing those wings.

For more information on the monarch decline, see “Decline of Monarch Butterflies Overwintering in Mexico: Is the Migratory Phenomenon at Risk? by Brower et al. 2011 at

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Milkweeds – place orders now

19 November 2012 | Author: Chip Taylor

monarch on milkweedGreetings: I need to get milkweeds off my mind (all that latex is messing up my brain) and into the ground.

I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to build a market for milkweeds and it’s going slowly – poco a poco as they in Spanish speaking countries. We need to make more progress. Our impact is still too small. We have some long range plans but they are still long range and we need to ramp up the milkweed plantings in the near term.

Thanks to many of you, we have seed – lots of it for most of the northeast (from MN to MA) and Texas and now we need orders for plugs. That’s where you can help.

We are working with a grower who produces terrific milkweed plugs, mostly for delivery in May but, we are going to try to have some ready for April. The plugs come in flats of 32 and are generally 3-4″ high, although incarnata (swamp milkweed is taller) and will cost about $1.80 each delivered (i.e., $57.60/flat with shipping included). The minimum order is one flat. Smaller plants in 72 unit cell trays (flats) will be available for some early April orders for a lower cost per plant. The shipping boxes hold two flats. So, it is a little less costly to order two flats at a minimum.

To have plants of optimal size for shipping in April and May, they need to be started in January and we need to have orders by December.

The question is: can you help us with these orders? We are trying to connect with native plant societies, nature centers, zoos and botanical gardens, master naturalists, master gardeners, and restoration projects – just about anybody that would be interested in distributing milkweeds through plant fundraisers or other means.

We use geographically-appropriate seed sources for the production of plugs and we do not supply tropical milkweeds.

For most of the northeast we have A. syriaca (common), A. incarnata (swamp), and A. tuberosa (butterflyweed) and for Texas we have A. viridis (green antelope horn) and A. asperula (antelope horn) and possibly A. oenotheroides (zizotes). We have seeds for some other species and regions as well. Please contact us if you have questions.

If you can connect us with buyers, that would be very helpful. Please send all inquiries, comments, or suggestions to us via Monarch Watch’s Bring Back the Monarchs campaign at

Thank you for your help.

P.S. Monarch Watch does not benefit financially from these arrangements.

Chip Taylor
Director, Monarch Watch

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Chip in for Monarch Watch

21 August 2012 | Author: Jim

The 2012 “Chip in for Monarch Watch” Fundraising Campaign is now underway! Please help us spread the word about this annual campaign which brings in funds to keep Monarch Watch’s education, conservation and research programs going…and growing!

If you are in a position to offer financial support to Monarch Watch (or if you know someone who might be), please consider making a fully tax-deductible donation of any amount during our 2012 “Chip in for Monarch Watch” fundraising campaign.

Visit for more information or to submit your pledge and tax-deductible donation. Be sure to check out the comments and photos submitted by other donors – we are continually amazed by the connections that are made through monarchs and Monarch Watch.

Last year’s campaign was a huge success, raising more than $31,000 – think we can top that this year? smiley

Complete campaign details at:

Thank you for your continued support!

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