Monarchs flutter by ParisMonarchs flutter by Paris

By: Nancy Zeman
Posted 10/3/19

A Saturday field trip when I was a junior in high school opened my eyes to the migration of the monarch butterfly, thanks to Teddy Day and my plan to become a journalist.

We were en route to a …

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Monarchs flutter by ParisMonarchs flutter by Paris


A Saturday field trip when I was a junior in high school opened my eyes to the migration of the monarch butterfly, thanks to Teddy Day and my plan to become a journalist.

We were en route to a high school journalism conference at the University of Illinois, driving up on what my dad called The Illini Trail which, if I recall is State Route 130. Anyway, somewhere on the other side of Villa Grove I remember this sea of monarch butterflies. I couldn’t believe it. Of course, Teddy (I respectively called her Mrs. Day at that time) explained it to me. It was something I never forgot.

Fast forward to the past couple of weeks here in Edgar County. My friend, Nancy Marrs, posted a couple of pictures on her Facebook page of what appeared to be hundreds of butterflies taking a rest in some of the Marrs’ farm trees. That was followed by pictures from Sharon Farris, who brought a couple of pictures by our office as well as pictures by our own Samantha Tucker of the trees on the West Lake filled with the orange, black and white butterflies.

It doesn’t take much for my inquiring mind to begin looking for more information, which I found thanks to Google and YouTube.

Monarch butterflies are the only insect that migrates to a warmer climate that is 2,500 miles away each year.

Monarchs are a flagship prairie species. Prairie habitat is important to pheasants and other animals dependent on grasslands and wildflowers. Pollinator-friendly habitat is filled with diverse nectar sources which support monarchs and native bees. Milkweed and other nectar sources provide monarchs with breeding habitat, resting and refueling stops during migration as well as food at the overwintering sites. Habitat providing insect-rich environments supports upland birds, grassland songbirds and other prairie wildlife.

We benefit, too. Native grasses and prairie flowers have complex root systems helping to filter water, reduce runoff and control erosion. Wildflowers beautify our landscapes. Diverse prairies are great places for recreation ranging from hiking, wildflower identification and bird watching to hunting.

To create healthy habitat for all grassland species we need to increase habitat connectivity, use native pollinator-friendly seed mixes and plant a range of nectar plants that bloom from early spring to mid fall.

Monarch butterflies are not able to survive the cold winters of most of the United States so they migrate south and west each autumn to escape the cold weather. The monarch migration usually starts in about October of each year but can start earlier if the weather turns cold sooner than that.

The monarch butterflies will spend their winter hibernation in Mexico and some parts of Southern California where it is warm all year long.

If the monarch lives in the Eastern states — usually east of the Rocky Mountains — it will migrate to Mexico and hibernate in oyamel fir trees. If the monarch butterfly lives west of the Rocky Mountains, then it will hibernate in and around Pacific Grove, Calif., in eucalyptus trees.

Unbelievably, monarch butterflies use the very same trees each and every year when they migrate. This is a real mystery because they aren’t the same butterflies that were there last year. These are the new fourth generation of monarch butterflies.

How do they know which trees are the right ones to hibernate in? Scientists aren’t really sure.

The monarch butterfly migration akes place during late summer or autumn in southern Canada, the U.S., coastal California and Mexico. They return to the northern region during spring. This happens during the lifespan of three to four generations of this butterfly. Monarchs can fly thousands of miles, migrating to as far as Canada in the north and as far as Mexico City in the south.

Monarchs are amazing migrants, as they always know the right direction for migrating without having ever undertaken the flight earlier. They seem to have a built-in compass that directs them to the correct course every fall and spring. The organized migration of these butterflies is among the most wonderful natural events in the world of insects.

Only monarchs born in late summer or early fall make the migration, and they make only one round trip. By the time next year's winter migration begins, several summer generations will have lived and died. It will be last year's migrators' great-grandchildren that make the trip. Yet somehow these new generations know the way — following the same routes their ancestors took — sometimes even returning to the same tree.

Many scientists are concerned about the eastern population of monarchs, which summer east of the Rocky Mountains. This group is occurring in ever smaller numbers. Its survival may be threatened by a series of natural disasters in the Mexican wintering grounds, as well as by reduced acreage of milkweed plants in their summer home.

The good news is we can help save the monarchs by helping to provide a natural habitat for the butterflies, imperiled bees and other pollinators.

There is no one group or agency responsible for providing habitat needed for monarch conservation. All organizations, agencies and individuals must work together to improve, restore and create grassland habitats to save monarchs.

Schools, churches, parks and individuals are encouraged to plant milkweed and nectar plants native to our area. Garden organically to minimize the impact on monarchs, their food plants and other pollinators. Become a citizen scientist and monitor monarchs in our area. Educate others about pollinators, conservation and how they can help.

The monarchs we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks are flying an average of 22 miles a day, traveling only during daylight.

Now added to my bucket list of things I’d like to see or do before leaving this Earth is to visit the wintering grounds of the Monarchs in the mountains of Mexico. What a magnificent sight it must be.