What does a flash of orange and black wings in the sky, a chubby white and black and yellow lump on a leaf, a delicate light green translucent jade container with flecks of iridescent gold trim, and a microscopic light green cone on the underside of leaves have to do with one another? If you have ever seen any one of the three then, you have seen one of the unique life stages of a Monarch Butterfly, an intricate and
Monarch Butterflies taking a rest on their long migration. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi
fragile California Native Insect. While the different life stages of a Monarch are fascinating, it is the endurance and incredible distances that this lightweight insect travels that is truly astonishing.
Monarchs are a common site in California, and if you’ve ever been outside on a bright spring day in a garden surrounded by flowers, you’ve probably seen one of these taking a sip from a flower, hovering and then gracefully floating on and over the wall aimlessly. But in reality these insects have a greater sense of direction than you would expect. Monarchs have been known to travel from Mexico to Canada! Technically it is not the same individual Monarch butterfly to make the entire trip, but each generation of Monarch picks up where the last generation left off. Talk about a family purpose and vision!
Scientists have observed that it takes roughly four generations of Monarchs to complete the journey. Each generation being born during a different part of the migration path and continuing to the next stop guided by their internal compasses. Migrating Monarchs will travel together with their family members and you can see them roosting (taking a nice long nap) in places like Pismo Beach, California.
Monarchs Roosting in Pismo Beach. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi
However, over time fewer Monarchs have been making this trip. As more of the wilderness along their migration route has disappeared, fewer and fewer Monarchs can finish the trip that their ancestors begun. Part of that has to do with the life cycle of the insect. The Monarch is dependent upon Milkweed, which is the plant where baby Monarchs (eggs and caterpillars) begin their journey.
What can we do to help? If you want to help Monarchs to complete their natural migration one way you can help is by planting Milkweed in your gardens. This can be a constant replanting because if you are doing your part to help the Monarchs they will probably eat you out of house and home (or at least Milkweed). When Monarchs get started on a Milkweed plant, they will eat it down to the stalks to absorb as much food and nutrients as possible. By feeding these butterflies and planting Milkweed, we are helping to continue to keep an invisible bridge open for migrating Monarchs to go the distance.